I’m sure Doncaster Racecourse wasn’t the only count venue that experienced a collective jaw drop when the General Elections exit poll was announced. At a time when commentators suggest a minority government will have less time than ever to focus on local government, I’d venture to suggest it should do the opposite.
I have argued before that we need a sensible debate with the British public about the state of the state we can afford and need, and that people are willing to pay for. Local government – please, LGA – needs to show some collective discipline on finance, rather than an ‘every place for itself on the distributional front’ mentality. Anything less fails the people we serve and failure is not a state we can afford. We have already allowed ourselves to be enmeshed in incoherent, arbitrary devolution approaches. We have a chance to reject this and determine what good looks like.
We know we need to recalibrate public service finances. Will the Local Government Finance Bill get through? Is it sustainable to pay for the soaring costs of services with a tax system based on property and full-time employment as we shift to online shopping, and, as The MJ’s editor put it, ‘a self-employed gig economy’.
2020 is an abyss, not just because of the lack of a settled finance system but also due to the Better Care Fund, which shores up the adult social care problem.
In Doncaster, implementing the bedroom tax cost a fortune and achieved nothing. Universal credit implementation denies people access to basic bank accounts, forces reliance on food banks and brings an estimated £0.5bn in transaction costs – a benefits sanctions regime that costs twice as much as it saves, has a six-week delay in receiving benefit money and increases demand for high-end services. This is not the mark of a civilised society.
Increases in homelessness are a result of welfare benefit policy. Aside from the effects on individuals, it is affecting the attractiveness and performance of town centre economies. An intended saving to the public purse costs money as we pick up the pieces.
So, government, talk to us. We can help you achieve your objectives and make the best use of the public purse because we understand the local unintended consequences of Westminster policy.
Jo Miller is president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) and chief executive of Doncaster MBC