There was a dark inevitability around last week’s announcement of another Section 114 notice – this time from Slough – as councils across the country struggle with their finances.
It is true – although declared in hushed tones – that some councils are awash with COVID cash, a short-term financial fix to the long-term fiscal problem. But it is only short-term. When the worst of the pandemic is over and the cash dries up, it is back to austerity.
Worse still, it’s not the old austerity – it is post-pandemic uber-austerity, with a Treasury clamouring to recoup cash in a bid to pay for its emergency action during the COVID crisis.
In his speech to the Local Government Association virtual conference earlier this week, communities secretary Robert Jenrick attempted to pass off recent s114 notices as council failures – isolated incidents of mismanagement.
Whether that is true for those that have succumbed to s114s so far is debatable. But the reality is even the best councils are crawling closer to the edge of a financial cliff.
Mr Jenrick did, however, promise to stand up for local government in the run-up to the Spending Review, to cut ringfenced grants and competitive funding for small pots of cash from across Whitehall – just before he sang the praises of his own department’s bid-funded projects.
He also unveiled plans for a more place-based approach to local government. Could it be that, more than a decade on, we see a return to the principles of Total Place? Rebadged for a new era, of course.
Mr Jenrick even hinted at the demise of Local Enterprise Partnerships, cutting out the middle man and dealing directly with councils. And he encouraged councils to think in ten to 20-year plans, ridding the sector of short-term thinking and rewarding councils for ‘responsible’ housebuilding and development.
I doubt many would argue with Mr Jenrick’s vision of joined-up, place-based, long-term planning. But it’s hard to reconcile a ten to 20-year plan with a system that sees councils’ finances lurch blindly from year to year, on a promise of a three-year deal that fails to materialise.