Let's start again

The next government will have to reset the relationship with councils and establish an equal partnership between local and national government, says Cllr Kevin Bentley.

While the focus is on who will form the next national government, it is local government that works at the front line of our daily lives and holds the keys to addressing the huge challenges facing our country.

Yet local government has never faced a more difficult or uncertain future. This year was the sixth one-year settlement in a row for councils, continuing to hamper their financial planning abilities and their financial sustainability. The continued pressure on council budgets leaves them facing tough choices and having to make cuts to local services in order to plug funding gaps.

Councils are being expected to deliver more with less and this cannot continue. 

As funding has fallen, councils have had to focus their spending to meet their statutory obligations which has led to a reduction in spending on preventative services and a greater focus on providing reactive, demand-led services. It has also meant that the things that give each place its unique character such as parks and libraries, leisure and cultural services, youth services and high streets have fallen by the wayside.

This has resulted in the universal nature of local services coming under severe threat as budgets are crowded out by essential statutory services for a relatively small proportion of the community.

Today the Local Government Association published our Local Government White Paper, a flagship policy document built after months of consultation with councils and key stakeholders, which sets out how a reset relationship between central and local government is the only way whoever forms the next government to tackle the issues facing the country.

It includes our new analysis that councils in England face a £6.2bn funding gap over the next two years. It is clear that all political parties need to commit to a significant and sustained increase in funding for councils in the next Spending Review. This should be granted alongside multi-year funding settlements and plans to reform the local government finance system to ensure councils receive the adequate funding and stability to plan and deliver the services we all rely on.

But it is not just about money.

Now is the time to also have a serious conversation about what is expected from local government and look at the huge gap between what local communities need and want, and what local government is currently funded to deliver.

Councils know their areas best. They know the needs of their residents and how to cater best to these needs. This is why our White Paper also calls on the next government to urgently commission a major review of public service reform to understand how all public services can work together within their local communities, focusing on a joint approach to investing in more preventative services and reducing demands on current costly and high need services such as adult and children's social care.

While we as a country continue to grapple with the economic fallout of recent years, real economic growth can only be achieved if every local economy is firing on all cylinders. To unlock the potential of people and their communities, it is councils who can play a vital leading role in unlocking labour markets, creating jobs, plugging skills gaps and increasing productivity.

The White Paper also includes specific proposals to tackle the big issues such as a lack of affordable housing, reforming adult social care, and reviewing early years education and childcare.

With the General Election fast approaching, whoever forms the next government will have to reset the relationship with councils and establish an equal partnership between local and national government. 

This is the only way we can meet the fundamental long-term challenges facing our communities.

Cllr Kevin Bentley is senior vice chairman of the Local Government Association

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