The year that was

By Martin Ford and Ann McGauran | 11 December 2019

January

As the tinsel came down in town halls across the UK, chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss called for rural counties to get the same devolved powers as metro mayors. Hopefully, without the insistence on mayors.

And The MJ exclusively revealed councils had begun warning Whitehall about their Brexit risk assessments, ‘amid fears of crime spikes, public demonstrations and food bottlenecks’.

The end of the month saw The MJ’s 125th birthday party – a glittering reception at the House of Lords – complete with an 8-page cut-out-and-keep guide to a century and a quarter of covering the sector.

February

Marsham Street was under fire – again – this time from a scathing Public Accounts Committee report which accused the ministry of lacking the ambition to improve local government finances beyond merely ‘coping’.

Then The MJ/LGiU annual finance survey revealed struggling local authorities were already down to a core level of service delivery – or as we like to think of it, just merely coping.

The sector quietly fumed over the lack of pre-Brexit planning from central Government, with a summary of regional returns – seen by The MJ – revealing ‘the lack of clarity and unresolved issues makes robust planning extremely difficult’.

A lack of clarity and unresolved issues over Brexit. Who would have thought it?

March

The Government’s £1.6bn post-Brexit funding boost to deprived communities was widely criticised for ‘not going far enough to make up for years of austerity’.

While, in an exclusive interview with The MJ, Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) chief executive Rob Whiteman and finance spokesperson for Solace, Martin Reeves, said the Government’s choice to target councils for cuts was to blame for local government’s financial woes rather than austerity.

Talking of financial woes, the Institute for Fiscal Studies’s Local Government Finance and Devolution Consortium – which is supported by The MJ – had been number crunching the options to see what would work best for fiscal devolution if the Government wanted to hand more finances down to local government. It’s income tax, apparently.

The 29 March Brexit deadline finally came…and went, without an EU exit in sight after PM Theresa May’s deal was booted out by MPs. Then, in a Bazar career move, David Van Day – one-half of the pop duo Dollar – was elected as a Conservative councillor for Thurrock Council in Essex.

April

The Government finally confirmed, after weeks of lobbying by the sector, that Whitehall would pay back ‘reasonable’ spending by returning officers during contingency preparations for European Parliamentary elections. No, not an April fool.

And with no apparent sense of irony, Birmingham City Council’s improvement panel issued a fairly damning report on the council’s lack of improvement – and promptly announced they were off.

Over in Kensington & Chelsea LBC, chief executive Barry Quirk claimed social housing has faced ‘institutional neglect’, while devolution minister Jake Berry admitted the oft-delayed devolution framework would not be published until after Brexit. Whenever that is.

In a startling (not) turn of events, it emerged that the most common councillor name in the UK is John – a clear case of #johnderbias.

May

Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Committee Clive Betts said the Government should not bother with the social care Green Paper – and should instead ‘produce the White Paper and get on with it’. Yes, we are all sick of waiting for it too.

Talking of delays, plans to create two new unitaries in Northamptonshire were pushed back a year until April 2021, and CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman called for the fair funding review to be halted until after the Spending Review.

The Society of County Treasurers told an HCLG Committee’s inquiry into council finances Marsham Street’s plans for local authorities to break free from reliance on Government support were ‘improbable’.

The month ended with the 11 councils in danger of running out of reserves being publicly named. Only 11?

June

In his final days as chairman of the Local Government Association, Lord Gary Porter warned councils would need a cash top-up if the political turmoil forced the new Prime Minister to delay plans for a three-year Spending Review. FYI – we are still waiting for the Spending Review.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s permanent secretary Melanie Dawes admitted to the Public Accounts Committee that the department ‘could have done more’ in response to the Grenfell Tower fire.

And Stratford-on-Avon DC had its very own ‘me too’ moment when head of paid service Isabel Edgar Briancon walked out after just seven months citing ‘inappropriate behaviour’.

July

While we are on the subject of rapid departures, Dawn Baxendale announced she was off to New Zealand – after less than a year as chief executive of Birmingham City Council. Never fear, The MJ also revealed the council was drafting in six non-executive advisers to help do the turnaround job – presumably, now that Ms Baxendale and the improvement panel had both thrown in the towel left.

The leaders of 15 councils were left somewhat stunned after millions of pounds worth of approved funding from the Housing Infrastructure Fund were abruptly withdrawn as they were deemed to be ‘not value for money’. Not sure the leaders agreed.

And Boris’ long-awaited entry to Number 10 came amid the departure of communities secretary James Brokenshire and an air of expectation over future devolution. But the real news was the new Number 10 dog. They so should have called it Rexit.

August

Not for the last time, authorities were tasked with picking up the pieces following devastating flooding, including Derbyshire CC, where the town of Whaley Bridge was evacuated over fears the dam holding back the Toddbrook Reservoir would be breached.

New communities secretary, the millennial Robert Jenrick, had barely got through the door at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) when he called a crunch meeting with the Local Government Association over funding for Brexit and issued an edict to appoint a lead officer in every authority.

Councils were left in the dark as a deadline to publish indicative figures of councils’ 20/21 funding was missed and an MHCLG official was hurt in a knife attack at Marsham Street.

September

The much-anticipated Spending Review became a rather less exciting single-year Spending Round with funding announced for social care, homelessness, SEND support and the towns fund. A positive bonanza.

In an exclusive interview with The MJ, Mr Jenrick said it made the sector ‘far stronger’ – and he defended his department’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

Meanwhile, his boss Mr Johnson, launched a devolution charm offensive, backing more mayoral models and extended powers for existing devolution deals.

October

Devolution continued to dominate headlines in October, with the Queen’s Speech promising to extend the coverage of combined authorities. But devo comes with conditions. Behind the scenes, the Government was sounding out counties about potential unitary plans. Watch out for the reorganisation bloodbath to come.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was put on a no-deal Brexit footing with days left until the UK was due to leave the EU, only for Boris to be forced into writing a letter asking for an extension. So no-deal, yet.

November

General Election manifestos came under the spotlight as parties vied for votes in the race to Number 10, amid demands for devolution, increases to local government funding and action to tackle the care crisis.

Election teams across the country did their best to muster up the energy for another election, while returning officers’ fees became the subject du jour of local papers.

They were not the only ones under fire – the Conservatives were criticised for a lack of public spending while Labour were lambasted over too much public spending... And everyone bickered about the NHS.

But it wasn’t all about the election. The Local Government Association highlighted how growing child poverty was increasing the burden on children’s services, while the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned taxes must rise for councils to maintain services.

December

It was revealed that trust in councils is at a three-year high, with four in five people putting trust in councils to spend public funds, according to a survey. Trust in national politicians perhaps less so – see Dame Louise Casey’s fact-check on homelessness (News – p3) for details.

Another piece of research found that scrutiny is less well regarded, with just 31% of councillors feeling there was ‘parity of esteem’ with executives. And it seems climate change concerns are shooting up the agenda faster than mercury in a summer heatwave.

And the year’s drama is still not over – today’s election will see the next Government, with the potential for a Queen’s Speech next week, and a finance settlement to come.

But still no sign of the Spending Review, social care Green Paper, devolution framework or, indeed, Brexit.

Merry Christmas!

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