As we left a sun-drenched Bournemouth at the end of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Annual Conference on 4 July, 2019, none of us could have imagined that it would be three years until we would all be able to meet together again at the local government event of the year.
We are so excited to be hosting delegates in-person again in Harrogate at our annual conference next week with a great programme of speakers including Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, Shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, crossbench peer Baroness Young and Olympian Kriss Akabusi, alongside hugely topical discussions for councillors and senior officers to discuss the big issues facing our local communities.
There will be no shortage of things to discuss. The COVID-19 pandemic has left a lasting impact on not only the health and wellbeing of the nation but also many of our local services and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has seen councils, once again, stepping up to provide support for those fleeing the war.
This year’s Queen’s Speech also saw the Government set out the busiest legislative programme in more than 15 years, with a package of draft reforms comprising 38 bills. The previous record is held by the 2005 Queen’s Speech, which contained 45 pieces of legislation. The conference will give us the chance to discuss how councils can help shape and deliver proposals relating to devolution, planning, council tax, education, energy, housing, health, crime and justice, public procurement, local audit and post-Brexit regulation and more so that local communities across the UK are empowered to tackle inequalities.
Our Innovation Zone will showcase the range of innovative ideas and approaches being adopted by councils focusing on this year’s theme of ‘Resilience and Renewal’. The Innovation Zone marks the launch of our new Spotlight on series, offering a limited series of talks that inspire, challenge audience members to think differently and engage with big ideas. It will also provide opportunities to learn more about the LGA’s updated sector support offer for councils, funded by central government. The LGA’s sector support offer continues to be shaped through direct engagement with councils, providing them with support to address challenges and provide critical services to communities, while helping to drive change and improvement across all regions.
For example, our leadership programme identifies and shapes new and existing talent among councillors and officers, and supports councils to represent, and deliver for, the communities they serve. Our expanded governance and finance offers will help councils to enhance performance, systems and capacity, including through financial resilience and data-informed decision-making.
All of this comes amid the backdrop of the national and local response to the cost-of-living pressures which are presenting an urgent, cross-cutting challenge to our communities.
The rising costs of fuel, food and other essentials is leaving the most vulnerable in society at risk of tipping over a cliff-edge. Some households across the country face the very real possibility of becoming homeless, having to choose between heating or eating, and not being able to get about and receive support.
Extra support to mitigate the impact of rising energy bills and funding for those on the lowest incomes, who are disproportionately affected by price rises, recently announced by the Chancellor will help ease the pressure on household budgets this year. It is good that this support is going through the mainstream benefits system, enabling councils to focus on targeting their help towards those facing the greatest need, including through the recently extended and increased Household Support Fund.
Both the war in Ukraine and the growing climate crisis have made future economic shocks, and food and fuel shortages, increasingly likely. It is therefore vital that we think honestly, openly and collaboratively about how best to ensure that our communities are more financially and socially resilient in the longer-term.
Many households have uncertain and unpredictable income and outgoings and little or no financial reserves to manage changes in circumstances. This leaves them highly vulnerable to both macro- and micro-economic and financial shocks.
Councils and local partners will continue to do what they can to protect those on the lowest incomes against higher costs for food, transport and other essentials and target help to those facing the most complex challenges. But we are clear that these measures must be accompanied by a longer-term solution to addressing wider cost of living pressures, which may be with us for some time to come, and reducing the need for further emergency support.
This is why we continue to emphasise the importance of local flexibility and leadership in levelling up, enabling councils to work with their partners and communities to deliver strong, inclusive and resilient local economies and reduce disparities in opportunities and outcomes.
Councils have delivered remarkable services and support. But they can’t tackle the challenge alone. We need to strengthen and maintain a collaborative approach between national and local government and key partners in the private, public and voluntary sectors. This should include long-term protection through the mainstream benefits system and sufficient, sustainable resources to councils and local partners to provide both targeted and effective crisis support alongside services that increase opportunity and lift people out poverty for good.
We need to ensure that the mainstream welfare system – which includes approaches to benefits, housing affordability and employment support – provides stability and opportunity in the long term to make communities more resilient to future macroeconomic shocks. It is good that the Chancellor has made a commitment to uprating benefits next year in line with the likely increase in inflation. We need to ensure that this is accompanied by continued efforts to increase the supply of affordable housing in both the social and private rented sectors, and to ensuring that people access stable, well-paid jobs with good prospects for training and progression.
Poverty and financial insecurity are strongly linked to poor mental and physical health outcomes and reduced individual and community capacity. This stifles economic recovery and entrenches disadvantage.
Councils deliver a wide range of services that have an impact on income and affordability for low-income households. Devolving greater responsibility and spending power to local councils to enable them to maximise social and economic capital in their places will enable them to ensure that communities are more inclusive and resilient. Councils are increasingly developing cross-cutting anti-poverty or similar strategies and are uniquely well-placed to lead local partnerships that bring together key priorities including housing affordability, food sustainability, energy efficiency and access to training and skills development alongside financial support and inclusion.
Councils can and should play a stronger role in improving financial inclusion, including through partnerships that improve access to appropriate and affordable credit and financial services, and through debt and money advice.
The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care highlighted evidence that the chances of children in poverty living safely in their family and community are significantly lower than for their wealthier peers. Improving the material conditions of families where it is affecting their ability to parent can help to keep families safely together and improve children’s lives, along with their short- and long-term outcomes. This can be done through practical support, signposting and advice, where councils have the funding to do so.
Government is right to see a strong national economy as a key way to improve resilience in the long term. The levelling up agenda recognises the need for economic prosperity to be shared more fairly across different places. However, we also need to ensure that the benefits of investment and growth are realised across different sections of society and that we better support and connect people from disadvantaged backgrounds to growth and opportunity.
The LGA has been working with councils, Government and a wide range of partners prior to and throughout the pandemic on key issues including crisis support, financial resilience, health inequalities, employment, environment, transport and housing.
There isn’t one approach that will tackle the cost of living pressures we all face. We need a collective response that ensures those who are most vulnerable in society don’t fall off a cliff edge. Councils can play a key role in this but they need support from Government and partners to do this.
Cllr James Jamieson is Chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents more than 350 councils across England and Wales
The LGA Annual Conference will take place at the Harrogate Convention Centre between 28-30 June. To sign up to attend and view the latest programme please visit the website.
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