Daring to be bold

By Piali Das Gupta | 06 March 2024

The UK’s ‘too hard to do’ box must be overflowing by now. Key recommendations from the Lyons Inquiry into Local Government seem to have taken up permanent residence there: council tax revaluation, a local share of income tax, even the modest proposal of a tourist tax.

Implementing the Lyons recommendations was never going to be straightforward, even back then. There were always difficult trade-offs to weigh and interdependencies to consider. Almost two decades on, local government funding is, if anything, even more messy and complicated so reluctance to open up discussions that don’t lead to a quick fix may be understandable.

But leaving aside the moral imperative of not allowing the financial sustainability of local services to languish in the ‘too difficult’ box indefinitely, there’s another important reason we shouldn’t do that: councils have shown time and again that we can do hard things successfully. While a lot of airtime is going to the services and functions local government is struggling to maintain, there is a risk that we fail to reflect on our extraordinary achievements of the past decade and more, and reflect on why they position us well to help an incoming government, whoever forms it, tackle the most challenging inbox in a generation.

Take social housing. After decades of being sidelined, councils are firmly back in the housebuilding game. In London, for example, boroughs met the target of starting 20,000 homes since 2018 a year early, more than they have built since the 1970s. Although current market conditions are making delivery a challenge, with less restrictive funding they could do more. The significance of this achievement is that from a standing start in 2012, councils all over the country built up their capacity in a service area that had long been dormant. Moreover, many councils are starting to win awards for the quality and sustainability of their housing development. Local government isn’t just building again, but building well.

Public health is another example. The transfer (or return, as some would describe it) of public health responsibilities to local government just over a decade ago now feels almost prescient. It is hard to imagine how this country would have got through the pandemic without bringing together the expertise of public health colleagues with the other council functions that help connect with residents and businesses and mobilise the invaluable support of the voluntary sector and faith groups. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing at the start. There were tricky funding, distribution, TUPE and culture change issues to address, some of which required difficult compromises. But we did it and continue to evolve, building on our collective learning. There’s a lesson in that too: not everything can be or has to be resolved from day one or even year one.

Going back to the issue of distribution, this is often the final hurdle at which discussions of reform of local government finance stall. The view seems to be that local government can never agree, so that is that. While it is a different matter to try to negotiate consensus across 33 local authorities than 300-odd, there is experience from London that could potentially be useful in thinking about how we could cross the distribution Rubicon. London’s share of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) was initially given to the Greater London Authority to manage exclusively. Not only did boroughs through London Councils come to a voluntary agreement with the Mayor of London to secure an allocated share of UKSPF, they also agreed a distribution formula among themselves. We should not underestimate local government’s maturity of leadership, especially when there is a real prize on the table.

Of course, it is not solely within local government’s gift to solve or even open up discussion of the most critical issues. Central government’s reticence may also be informed by the significant time horizons some of those issues will need (spanning multiple parliaments and thus potentially changes of government), as well as fears about how reform proposals could land with the general public. Local government can help on both fronts.

For example, on issues like social care reform, there is a prevailing view that a sustained path to lasting change can only come if all political parties can come to agreement on the basic principles. There must be a question about whether civil servants could really be expected to have experience of brokering cross-party agreement. There is actually no other part of the public sector apart from local government that has experience of working with all political parties on a regular basis. Not just bodies like the LGA and London Councils that operate on a cross-party basis, but think about all of those councils under no overall control. Local government has unique insight to bring to the mix.

Moreover, councils have been at the forefront of exploring new deliberative forms of resident engagement, like citizens assemblies and resident panels. Partly because of the tough choices austerity has forced on councils, many have increasingly valued and developed mechanisms for engaging residents to look at evidence and data and help weigh up choices and trade-offs. When difficult questions need to be opened up in public, councils can suggest and support effective ways to do that.

The mood music in local government is that we want to position ourselves as a trusted partner to the next government to tackle the nation’s challenges. We should have every confidence in the strength of our offer.

Piali Das Gupta is London Councils’ strategy director, London’s future

X – @PialiDG X – @londoncouncils

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Finance Social Care London Councils Council Tax Housing Public health Greater London Authority Engagement