Rarely have we seen the amount of potentially radical change as in the sector today. The fundamental issue of local government finance is under examination, through both the business rates review and further limitations on borrowing for commercial investment.
Of course, this is in the context of significant funding reductions since 2010, and a Government rowing back from early pandemic promises of ‘whatever it takes’ to more of an imposed ‘burden sharing’ approach.
Aside from finance, we have the biggest policy question facing the sector, the future of adult social care, with the mooted Green Paper well overdue, and pre-recess hints of a merger with health. Alongside that, local government’s role in public health is now in question, with the recent demise of Public Health England and the creation of the new National Institute for Health Protection.
In governance terms, we have the new Local Government Association Model Member Code of Conduct, as well as the outcomes of the Redmond Review of local government audit. I write before the latter is published, but there is a consensus the 2014 reforms have not been entirely successful and a radical new approach is needed.
Perhaps the issue that most defines the politics of local government – planning – is also heading towards a watershed moment with new planning rules proposed in the recent White Paper, and visible urgency within Government to move to implementation. All this is happening alongside discussions on local government reorganisation ahead of the devolution and recovery White Paper, purportedly just around the corner.
How local government can sensibly be reorganised without a clear view of its core purpose (will adult social care services be in or out?) or funding mechanisms baffles me.
More importantly, these proposals have already run into intense lobbying, both from interested stakeholders, but also from within nominally friendly political circles, including the councillor ‘foot soldiers’ who can be key to electoral victory.
How much political capital the Government is prepared to expend on delivering all of these once-in-a-generation changes will be interesting to see. My bet is not all will come to pass.
Abdool Kara is executive leader for local services at the National Audit Office