James Jamieson: What local authorities are looking for in the Queen’s Speech this week

10 May

Cllr James Jamieson is the Chairman of the Local Government Association and a former Leader of Central Bedfordshire Council.

The Queen’s Speech is not only a big set-piece for government as it lays out its wide ranging legislative agenda to level up the country, but also a crucial opportunity to reform laws to help councils improve services for everyone and make the economic recovery quicker and stronger.

We want these plans to work for all communities by building on the efforts of local leaders to provide effective, trusted and reliable public services – most evidently recognised during the pandemic – and empowering councils to lead. This is why, to help achieve our shared aspirations with government and level up communities, we are urging ministers to make permanent changes to three key areas of the LGA’s legislative priorities: planning, devolution and adult social care.

Firstly, government needs to bring forward a new devolution settlement for England in which devolution deals are locally led and not standardised. A new devolution settlement is vital so that all parts of England have the opportunity and certainty to reap the benefits of having greater powers and funding to improve local services such as housing, transport, and health and social care, and save money from the public purse. Councils need to be given the widest set of powers, including fiscal devolution, and powers returning from the EU passed down to the local level. Any newly devolved powers and responsibilities must be fully funded and sit alongside a long-term sustainable funding settlement for local government.

Secondly, government needs to commit to long-term reform of adult social care, which could be a landmark moment as significant as the birth of the NHS. Only by reforming this essential service, in a way which is more than just implementing the Dilnot recommendations, will future-proof the way the underfunded system is paid for to help people lead the lives they want to lead. Reforms should include funding to meet the continuing costs of COVID-19 on social care, particularly on the care workforce and unpaid carers, as well as investment to tackle the funding gap between the cost of providing care and what councils pay.

Finally, we are keen to work with government to reform and strengthen our planning system, ensuring it remains locally-led, where communities continue to be able to shape the area they live in, have their say over the type of developments built in their neighbourhoods and see that these are supported by the right infrastructure. It is developers who are responsible for building homes – councils simply provide the planning permission for them. But with nine in 10 planning applications approved by councils, and more than 1.1 million homes given planning permission in the last decade but not yet built, it is clear that it is the housing delivery system that is broken, not the planning system. Government needs to oblige developers to build. We are asking government to fully engage with expertise in local government who can improve the planning system more quickly and effectively, and give councils resources to adopt any new planning reform process.

The good news is that our regularly parliamentary polling shows that there is broad support for our recommendations. It found that 83 per cent of MPs and 88 per cent of Peers support our asks on social care; 80 per cent of MPs and 88 per cent of Peers back our calls for councils to have more financial freedoms and powers to build new homes; and 72 per cent of MPs and 77 of Peers believe councils should have more control over local taxes such as council tax and business rates.

As an Association we are looking forward to working with Government and parliamentarians to make sure the new legislative agenda is truly transformational, supporting local council leadership to innovate and deliver meaningful change for residents as we work to level-up all areas of the country. The pandemic has shown the benefits of remote meetings which have improved public participation in council decisions. Government needs to ensure online and hybrid council meetings can continue.

With the right powers and financing, particularly those gained through a new devolution settlement that empowers local leadership, councils can help the Government tackle the challenges facing our nation and make a huge difference to their communities, boost economic growth and provide more robust and long-term improvements to the services people rely upon every day.