As conference season takes shape, LGA chair Lord Porter looks at the critical issues currently facing local government he is hoping will take centre stage
The end of September is a funny time in politics, where politicians and the press decamp en masse to the seaside or a city centre for five days to hear speeches, engage in spirited debate and survive on far too little sleep.
While the solutions each political party puts forward may differ, the issues each conference should be focusing on is beyond question. Any conference that doesn’t focus on adult social care, Brexit, children’s services, housing and homelessness – as well as local government funding – has failed to truly address the most pressing questions currently facing our communities.
The Local Government Association (LGA) will be hosting a number of debates and events across all major party conferences, as well as having LGA members speaking at lots more, covering everything from the Spending Review to social mobility. It is a great opportunity to highlight the work the LGA has been doing and pushing the important issues that need to be heard.
I don’t doubt some of you will be sick to death of the LGA banging on about our Adult Social Care Green Paper which we launched two months ago. Sadly the issue has been ignored by successive governments and with people living longer, increases in costs and decreases in funding, the system is at breaking point.
Over recent years, councils have protected adult social care relative to other services. But the scale of the overall funding picture for local government as a whole means adult social care services still face a £3.5bn funding gap by 2025, just to maintain existing standards of care. The likely consequences of this are more people being unable to get quality and reliable care and support, which enables them to live more fulfilling lives.
Action is needed following the Government’s decision to delay their own Green Paper, which is why the LGA launched its consultation in the first place.
The response we have had so far has been phenomenal and highlights the importance of starting a national conversation on this difficult issue. We have already had hundreds of submissions, plus considerable coverage in the regular media and on social media. I hope the level of debate we have had will continue through to each of the conferences and that our paper can inform the Government’s own Green Paper when they decide to publish.
Another issue I hope takes centre stage at the political conferences is local government funding.
This sector has sustained disproportionately large reductions in central government funding over this decade, in comparison to the rest of the public sector. Between 2010 and 2020, councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 the Government had provided for services. The funding pressures facing adult and children’s social care, as well as homelessness and public health, are particularly severe. The growing demand for these services has meant less money is being spent on the other services that keep our communities running such as libraries, local roads, early intervention and local welfare support.
The pressures faced by councils extends beyond cuts from central government. Increased demand for certain services has also made the problem worse.
For example the number of children taken into care has nearly doubled in a decade. Last year saw the biggest annual increase in children in care since 2010 and councils are now starting 500 child protection investigations every day.
Local authorities are also currently housing 77,000 homeless families in temporary accommodation, including more than 120,000 children.
The growing demand, combined with significant budget cuts, puts serious pressure on local government and its ability to continue providing the services our communities expect and deserve. At some point, something has to give.
Our analysis shows that local services face a funding gap of £7.8bn by 2024/25. This funding gap will already stand at £3.9bn by 2019/20. Funding this gap would still only leave services standing still, while incorporating additional demand, and would not allow for important improvements in local services.
Finally, there is one issue I can be sure that all of the conferences will cover and that is Brexit. It is important every conversation about Brexit is framed in how it will affect our communities.
Brexit will ultimately be judged as a success or failure by real people in real communities. That’s why we are working with Government and engaging with the expertise of local government to ensure we get these crucial negotiations right for local communities. It is also why it is so important the debate on Brexit addresses the key issues of local funding, trade, devolution to our communities and everything in between.
A conference is a great opportunity to see old friends and make new ones, to listen to empowering speeches and engage in impassioned debate. It must also be a place where the big issues are tackled and solutions sought. If the conference season doesn’t do this, then it will have been a waste of time.
Lord Porter is chairman of the Local Government Association