We are not living or working in normal times. In a matter of just two weeks, councils have had to change fundamentally what they do and their focus. Some services have closed down, whether or not because of legislation. Many staff are working from home but others are unable to work if they have one of the specified medical conditions and their work cannot be done remotely. Unitary councils and district councils will have two main priorities at the moment: keeping waste collection services running and ensuring revenues and benefits teams can process reliefs, grants to businesses and the welfare funding provided by Government. Social services authorities are focused relentlessly on their public health role and sustaining social care services to help relieve pressure on the NHS, as well as running the new support service for shielded groups.
Against that backdrop, there are limited signals that Government and Parliament realise that policy initiatives and legislation that affect local government cannot carry on as normal. Proceedings on the Environment Bill have been suspended until 28 April. The Department for Work and Pensions issued the initial final housing benefit subsidy claim form for 2019-20 on 19 March. It is due by 30 April. The following day, DWP acknowledged that ‘this date may be unachievable for some LAs and [we] will not be applying any related withholdings in the short term’.
These measures are ad hoc and insufficient. We urgently need a Government-wide approach suspending policy and legislative initiatives for at least three months. They should not be a distraction when the priority is fighting coronavirus, in particular during the 12 week shielding period for the most vulnerable groups.
Because councils’ energy will be focused elsewhere, they should not be denied the chance to respond to important policy documents such as the consultation on the design and delivery of First Homes (closing date 3 April) or future lending terms for the Public Works Loans Board (closing date 4 June). Such consultations can fundamentally affect the responsibilities and funding of local government and now is not the time to proceed with them. The closing dates should be extended until at least the latter part of June. The Planning White Paper promised ‘in the Spring’ by the Planning for the Future policy statement – that was published on 12 March - should likewise be delayed. Consideration of the Environment Bill should be suspended to the end of June. Alternatively the provisions that directly affect local government (such as consistency of household collections) should be removed and returned to in a separate Bill in due course.
Performance measures should be relaxed or suspended, such as the targets for processing planning applications or the housing delivery test. It will not be a good use of central or local government capacity in coming months to have ‘conversations’ to ‘explain’ why performance has dipped. The Government needs to be realistic and accept that performance will be affected in these and many other areas.
The coronavirus outbreak has shown that, when it needs to, the Treasury is willing to spend many times what it would cost to solve the funding crisis in social care. So rather than waste time on green papers, white papers and so on, why can the Government not resolve to find the money from 2021 onwards and put up taxes to pay for it? The task could be reduced to reaching a common position with the Local Government Association and other stakeholders on what amount of money is needed. The public will not now expect the Government to be able to stick by its manifesto commitments not to increase certain key taxes. It has signed up to hundreds of billions of extra borrowing in the last fortnight, and only increased taxes can pay for that borrowing.
Depending on how the pandemic’s impact develops, local government might have to accept that other important changes on which it needs clarity should be delayed, including the devolution white paper and even the local government finance reforms scheduled for 2021. The Government has demonstrated that money is not in short supply. Given the impact on council finances in the short and medium-term, the Government could commit to a significant above inflation increase in its funding for local government in 2021-22, thus allowing time to finish the work on the new funding formula and the proper consultation that is required before going ahead with implementation.
For its part, the Government may also come to recognise that the 31 December deadline of securing a deal with the EU will soon need to be moved back.
The world has changed in the last few weeks. Realisation of the impact of the pandemic has gripped the Government in many respects but now needs to go much wider.
Ian Miller is chief executive of Wyre Forest District Council but writes here in a personal capacity.