Duncan McGinty: A remote single council for Somerset would be unpopular and mean missed opportunities

22 Dec

Cllr Duncan McGinty is the Leader of Sedgemoor District Council.

If you’re a Conservative Home reader who doesn’t live in Somerset, you may be tempted to look away now. You may consider this a little local dispute between Conservative councillors, unworthy of your attention. But you’d be wrong. The competing bids for local government reorganisation in Somerset are about far more than boundaries and bureaucrats – they speak to what modern Conservatism means for local communities.

My colleague Faye Purbrick, a Conservative Somerset county councillor, set out the county council case for the bid known as ‘One Somerset’ here. We agree on many things: we share a love of the ancient county of Somerset, and its traditions, landscape, and people; we concur that the current two-tier system, with one county council and district councils underneath, is no longer an acceptable way to deliver services; we want what is best for all the people of Somerset, from the hoteliers of Minehead to the aerospace engineers of Yeovil.

Where we differ is on the question of ambition. Our bid – Stronger Somerset – is ambitious for Somerset. Crucially, it is imbued with Conservative values, especially on the questions of economic growth, increasing revenues, and reducing the need for government handouts.

Under our proposals, people living throughout the county would have one seamless level of unitary government. Importantly, though, our bid recognises that there are marked economic differences between the western and eastern parts of Somerset. We cannot ignore these differences, nor wish them away, nor impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution from on-high.

Instead, our Stronger Somerset bid proposes a smarter solution: we want two unitary authorities, taking into account, not ignoring, regional differences within Somerset. The areas covered by Sedgemoor and Somerset West and Taunton to the west, and Mendip and South Somerset to the east form distinct sub-regions, with different local economies. For example, the economies of Glastonbury, Wells, and Yeovil are very different to Minehead, Bridgwater, and Taunton.

A western Somerset unitary would be able to focus on economic opportunities from Hinkley Point, and tourism to our beautiful coastline, once the pandemic is beaten. The eastern unitary would be able to capitalise on aerospace and hi-tech manufacturing around Yeovil. By recognising the realities of the local economy, each unitary would be able to play to its strengths and level up local communities.

A remote county-level authority would risk excluding communities from wealth, growth, and new opportunities, and that would be a tragedy. We believe that our Stronger Somerset bid will deliver the post-pandemic growth that means we become a net contributor to the Exchequer, paying our own way, and contributing to UK Plc. You don’t get much more Conservative than that. Using the Treasury model, we calculate £204 million of financial benefits resulting from our proposal, £35 million more than the other one.

Our proposal takes Somerset from five councils, with their duplicated costs, to two. And local people will pay their Council Tax to one Somerset council and receive services from one Somerset Council. Simpler, more efficient, cheaper. No wonder that the Stronger Somerset bid is more popular with local people. The latest Ipsos Mori poll shows clear support for Stronger Somerset over all other possibilities.

The other bid has resorted to some bizarre name-calling about our ambitious plans. For example, the claim that Stronger Somerset involves a ‘Berlin Wall’ across the county. That wins the prize for Trumpian spin, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Of course, there will be no physical divide between east and west Somerset, any more than there is between east and west Sussex or the east and west Midlands. The only place the ‘Berlin Wall across Somerset’ exists is in the minds of the spin doctors who concocted it to scare people. Under the Stronger Somerset plans, people will still proudly live in Somerset, regardless of the name of the local authority providing their services.

Indeed, our Stronger Somerset bid goes further in recognising and bolstering this traditional county identity. Unlike the other bid, we are ambitious that our proposal sets us on a path to a combined authority for Somerset as part of a package of real devolution to local people. This could encapsulate the borders, not just the current administrative unit, but the traditional historic borders of Somerset. The other bid, with its lack of ambition, is silent on the devolution agenda.

The most important thing is that we deliver value-for-money services to local people. That’s the bedrock of successful Conservative local government. That’s why we propose innovative cost-efficient services such as a Community-Interest Company (CIC) under a single Director of Children’s Services delivering across both unitary council areas. We have seen how this works well in Kingston-upon-Thames and Richmond councils. For adult social care, what will work best is adult services run by each unitary. The point is that we can flexible, responsive and innovative.

We mustn’t lose sight of the democratic element. The other bid promises all kinds of baubles to town and parish councils, but then caveats it with the weasel words ‘if appropriate’. We all know what that means. What Stronger Somerset offers instead is a real partnership with town and parish councils, backed by a new Charter of rights, to reverse decades of over-centralisation.

We are ambitious for Somerset, and we embrace the ways it will change. We understand that post-pandemic and with the tech revolution, more households and businesses will want to move away from cities, and more British people will want to enjoy the British seaside and countryside instead of flying abroad. That means that Somerset’s population will grow, something the other ‘off-the-shelf’ bid fails to acknowledge.

We believe that Stronger Somerset delivers better services, more democracy, stronger regional identity, and best of all it delivers a Somerset that pays its way, like London or the South East. Why create ‘one Somerset’ that ends up weaker, poorer and divided, when we could be united, prosperous and stronger?

Faye Purbrick: Don’t split Somerset in half

16 Dec

Cllr Faye Purbrick is the Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation on Somerset County Council

In 2009, Conservatives ended 16 years of Lib Dem control on Somerset County Council and set about doing what good Conservative authorities do; delivering efficient local public services and value for money. Of course, there have been challenges along the way, but we’ve balanced the books and are now in an enviable position with decent reserves and a stronger financial position than probably any other county council, despite Covid-19 pressures.

And we want that to continue. We also want to go further and be able to make sure that Somerset plays a leading role as we emerge from the effects of the pandemic, particularly in creating and attracting jobs and businesses with the long-term investment and infrastructure that we will need. The events of the last year have illustrated that local government has a key role to play in supporting local communities. But they have also shown the limitations of the current system with unnecessary boundaries, duplication and inefficiencies.

Let’s be very clear, this is not about district vs county. Indeed, the county council and the four districts (one Conservative and three Lib Dem) are agreed on one thing; that the current two-tier structure has run its path and is no longer fit for purpose.

The options therefore come down to a choice between one single council for Somerset, ‘One Somerset’, supported by the county council, the majority of MPs, local businesses, the Police Crime Commissioner and a majority of the people of Somerset who favour an end to confusion, duplication, and the generation of savings to reinvest in frontline public services.

The alternative proposal, backed by the districts, would in effect see a Berlin Wall placed down the middle of the county splitting it into small, rival East/West unitaries whilst creating a separate “Alternative Delivery Model” for children’s services, a shared services company, and an elected mayor/combined authority sitting over the top. It would therefore replace the existing five authorities, each with their own staff and separate cultures, with, five organisations, each with their own staff and separate cultures. Not only would this create confusion, it would disrupt existing county services (notably care for vulnerable adults and children) whilst each east/west unitary would struggle to be able to exist, serving a population smaller than the figure government believes is a credible entity. And that is before we start to look at the discrepancies in deprivation between East and West, twice as bad for those living in the West of the county – not just a split in our county but a blocker to aspiration and levelling-up.

A single unitary model has worked well in those areas that have adopted it in recent years including Dorset, Wiltshire, and Buckinghamshire. It is favoured by partners in the police, probation, and health service who care little about local government boundaries. It would allow Somerset to have a unified single voice, critical in attracting inward investment, and would join up local public services.

On every test, a single council delivers over the alternative five organisation approach; greater and quicker savings that can be reinvested back into public services with lower costs of implementation.

It would also deliver a boost to local democracy by creating a network of local community networks, working with local parish and town councils and at the heart of neighbourhoods and communities. People identify with their local village or town and their county and want to see services delivered at those levels; in fact, they just want to receive great quality and value, local services. And that’s what the One Somerset proposal would give them.

We have submitted a business case to the Secretary of State to do exactly this, but we are also setting out a series of clear commitments to the people of Somerset over the coming months to ensure that One Somerset delivers on what they want:

  1. No disruption to local services as we change, and a promise to keep residents fully informed.
  2. We will protect those front-line staff working with vulnerable people across the county.
  3. Council tax will not increase because of moving to a single unitary council.
  4. Physical, face-to-face council contact points across the county.
  5. One telephone number and one website to access ALL council services.
  6. Improved services for our vulnerable residents including housing, adults’ & children’s services.
  7. Improved services for our children and young people, including education, training, jobs and transport.
  8. More local decision making by our town and parish councils and new local community networks.
  9. Closer relationships with partners including the NHS, police, education, and the voluntary sector to deliver better services.
  10. And finally, we will not split Somerset in half, divide communities, lose our proud identity, or weaken our standing on a local, regional and national level.

What we are offering is simple and based on good Conservative philosophy: a blueprint for better services, better value for money and reduced bureaucracy, no artificial boundaries – and certainly not splitting our great county in half as we look to rebuild our communities and country following Covid. That’s what Conservatives stand for and that’s what we will deliver if we are given the opportunity to continue the journey that we started in 2009.

Harry Fone: Bristol is consulting on a Council Tax rise. But will it take any notice of the response?

15 Dec

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance. This is the first of a new column from him.

With many households struggling to pay their bills, it is hoped that councils across the country are tightening their belts and eradicating wasteful spending to avoid inflation-busting rate rises. Some local authorities are certainly trying but others leave a lot to be desired.

In Bristol, residents are taking part in a consultation on whether or not to increase council tax. Looking at the last five years, Bristol has hiked rates by the maximum permissible sum every time. It’s hard to imagine that council members would freeze tax even if everyone called for it.

The consultation lays out the economic challenges Bristol City Council faces. A shortfall of £9 million is forecast for this financial year – to be expected given the pandemic. But maybe the shortfall didn’t need to be so great given the millions of pounds of wasteful spending uncovered by the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The council spent over £900,000 on taxis alone between February and September this year. Add to this, £12 million on an entertainment arena that has yet to get off the drawing board and £37.7 million up in smoke on a failed energy company. Perhaps most ridiculous of all, councillors awarded themselves an allowances increase totalling £180,000, just as the pandemic was starting to take hold.

Rates could rise by as much as five per cent – described as “modest” by Bristol Council. Hardly modest when households in a typical band D property would see bills rise by nearly £90 to £1,846 (more than £2,100 when you include parish precepts).

The council asking residents for their feedback is most welcome. But given Bristol’s repeated tax hikes and poor record with taxpayers’ cash will it actually listen?

xxxxxx

In Lincolnshire there has been “fierce backlash” to South Kesteven District Council’s (SKDC) plan to potentially spend £100,000 of public funds to unveil a statue of Margaret Thatcher.

The leader of SKDC, Cllr Matthew Lee said:

“My expectation and that of our Cabinet is that the cost of the event will be fully met through donations and not the public purse. The Council will simply be providing a cash flow situation to support the forward funding of the event of up to £100,000.”

Of course there’s no guarantee that the council will recoup the money in full and there are more pressing local concerns. As one South Kesteven councillor put it to me:

“Some of our tenants have gone through two winters without proper heating in place. Rather than focusing on the needs of our residents, the Cabinet has decided to devote time and resources to a vanity project.”

I’m inclined to agree. Data shows that between 1997 and 2017, council tax has increased by 65 per cent in real terms for South Kesteven residents – every penny of their taxes must be used to procure the best frontline services possible.

The council has history when it comes to vanity projects. In 2019, SKDC announced plans to spend £103,000 on a giant outdoor TV screen “as part of its drive to develop the cultural scene in the district.” Given the threat of another rate rise many people will not be pleased to see precious funds spent on an unveiling ceremony.

Mrs Thatcher was very much a champion of getting the best possible deal for the taxpayer. After all she uttered the famous line:

“There is no such thing as public money, there is only taxpayers’ money.”

It has to be asked, would the Iron Lady herself approve of this largesse?

xxxxxxx

Good news east of Lincolnshire though. Reports suggest that Stoke City Council is set to trim the number of staff on its books. The authority is aiming to cut four roles from its senior management team. One idea is to merge the directors of Housing and Place into a single role. The most recent figures reveal each received remuneration in excess of £150,000. No wonder the council estimates savings of £360,000 a year.

Since 2007, the TaxPayers’ Alliance has compiled an annual list of council employees who receive remuneration in excess of £100,000. As of 2018-19, 2,667 individuals across 384 councils enjoyed six-figure pay packets – remuneration totalled £360.1 million. The average salary, excluding bonuses, pension contributions, expenses and loss of office payments, was £116,478. If each of the 384 councils were (on average) to cut just one position, recurring nationwide savings in the years ahead would be around £45 million.

It’s pleasing to see Stoke council taking positive steps to cut down on a bloated management structure. Other authorities must now follow their lead. For the sake of ratepayers who pay their wages, council bosses should be minimising wasteful spending and maximising efficiency wherever possible.

James Palmer: How devolution can bost innovation and economic growth

11 Dec

James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

The job of combined authorities is to increase economic prosperity for the people they serve. Devolution means powers and money are passed into local control, where, combined with local support and specialist knowledge, it can be put to best use.

As part of our devolution deal in 2017, we signed an agreement with central government to double local “Valued Added” by 2042. As I see it, we also have a responsibility to our entire region, not just the major economic centres that make up the majority of that output; to make sure growth and opportunities are spread evenly and fairly, not just in selected areas.

At the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority, we achieve this through supporting business growth, housing development, better transport, and enhanced education in every corner of the region. Maximising the great potential in areas that could well be described as “left behind” and in major need of “levelling up”.

Our ability to contribute to the UK economy is huge; in 2017 it was measured to be £22 billion. Before COVID-19, we had already seen local growth over and above expected levels because of interventions we have made. Imagine if the output of Cambridge could be matched across the entire Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region?

Last week, I went in front of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee to give evidence on the progress of devolution, where I was asked about the challenges and opportunities that come with Combined Authorities.

Extraordinary national challenges, including COVID-19 and the EU transition, has led to a centralisation of powers and a kick back against further devolution. Despite this, we have managed to achieve exceptional things. Things that would not be possible without a Combined Authority to set a vision and show leadership for the entire region.

By their nature, Combined Authorities are collaborative. Unlike local or national government, decision making requires cross-party consensus. We changed our governance structure so that elected members sit on all our committees, to represent the views of their constituents in co-designing local policies and develop knowledge and expertise in these areas.

We have delivered on our own levelling up agenda by providing more adult education opportunities in the north of the county, typically ‘left behind’ areas of low economic opportunity. We have got spades in the ground and second phase funding from government to deliver a new University for Peterborough, a project which had been going nowhere for over 20 years until the Combined Authority took over, just a couple of years ago. Our pioneering transport projects including the CAM Metro, will better connect the north of the region with the south, helping to crack open the wealth and opportunities that exist there.

Given the events of the Covid-19 response, Government may think Combined Authorities are a problem to manage and be disinclined to trust us further, but I genuinely believe we can be a crucial part of the Covid Recovery. Through partnership working, we can be more agile in meeting the needs of the region.  When Covid-19 hit, we responded quickly in collaboration with our Business Board – formerly the Cambridgeshire and Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership – investing almost £6 million of funding into over 170 small and medium businesses that were just missing out on government schemes. Our action led to the protection of 500 jobs and created a further 270 jobs during the first national lockdown.

At the Committee I was asked my views on what additional powers we need to deliver, particularly fiscal devolution. I believe we could perform even better for the region and contribute more to the UK economy if we were given that resource.

At present, we are required to go cap in hand to central government whenever we need additional funding, which is often only granted on a short term basis. This is understandable; if a Combined Authority is not responsible with its funding, Central Government shoulders the responsibility and foots the bill. Devolution of fundraising powers from central government would provide stable, long term funding, allow us to plan for and deliver on strategic projects that would revolutionise our region and ensure we hold a stake in responsible management of our resources. It is both an opportunity and a responsibility.

It is my belief that because of the strength of the economy and value of land in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire as a whole, we can raise money to deliver on ambitious large scale infrastructure projects such as the Cambridgeshire Autonomous through the power of the Cambridge economy alone. Mechanisms such as Land Value Capture, Tax Incremental Funding, Devolved Taxation Powers and the long-term ring fencing of increased business rates revenues due to growth would allow us to raise billions of pounds in finance that could be invested in better public transport, employment-focussed education opportunities and affordable housing.

If we are to recover the significant economic growth lost to Covid-19 and burst past it, we will need to embrace innovation and deliver differently. The Government must look at the massive opportunities that we have in this country to transform how we deliver major infrastructure.  While I speak of examples in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, this could be replicated across the UK. It is not only a different route of delivery, but a better route of delivery, on things that will improve people’s lives – which is, at the end of the day, the only reason I took on this job.

Harry Fone: How to avoid Croydon’s fate

3 Dec

Harry Fone is grassroots campaign manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Like Northamptonshire before it, Croydon Council has declared itself bankrupt. But what went wrong? Many blame austerity and coronavirus, but this is too simplistic. Through local activists, the Croydon Constitutionalists, I’ve learned of the hapless housing project, ill-judged investments, and wanton waste that sealed the council’s fate.

Is austerity to blame?

Croydon Council’s leader, Hamida Ali, has stated “austerity” is a major reason behind the bankruptcy. On the face of it, she may have a point. As the Council’s 2019-20 statement of accounts makes crystal clear, “since 2010, when austerity began, Croydon has seen its funding from Central Government reduce by 75 per cent”.

But compare it to other London boroughs and a fuller picture emerges. Between 1997 and 2010, before the cuts, Croydon Council raised rates 13 out of 14 years, leaving it with the seventh most expensive council tax charges in London. Residents were consistently asked to dig deeper into their pockets long before the coalition government. Looking at a 20 year period from 1997 to 2017, Council Tax rose in Croydon by 69.3 per cent in real terms, the third highest rise in London and compared to a city-wide average of 42 per cent. Most London councils have lower Council Tax bills and avoided bankruptcy. What’s special about Croydon?

Brick by Brick

One factor that cannot be ignored dates back to 2015. Croydon Council set up Brick by Brick (BBB), a company tasked with building 500 homes a year. Financed by £214 million worth of council loans, BBB made a loss of £774,952 in March 2019, despite obtaining some sites for just £1. It’s yet to make a single repayment on money it borrowed, having completed ony 283 homes in that time (less than half of which are deemed affordable). The latest set of accounts are still pending, but with profits forecast at a measly £250,000, Croydon residents will be waiting a long time for the homes they were promised or the loans to be repaid in full.

PwC summed it up, explaining, “the delays in bringing new homes to the market has put the Council at serious financial risk and resulted in only a handful of new homes being available. As a consequence, savings have not been made.” With almost nothing to show after five years and millions of pounds potentially down the drain, Brick for Brick has undoubtedly had a big role to play in Croydon Council’s downfall.

Risky business

Commercial property investments also failed to deliver. Take just two examples: the Croydon Park Hotel and the Colonnades retail park. Using the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB), the council purchased these for a cool £80 million. The hotel is now in administration and, given the current circumstances, the future of the Colonnades doesn’t look rosy either. But again it’s not simply about covid. As my colleague, Jeremy Hutton, explained in his analysis of local authority commercial property investments, high street retail investments were already struggling before the pandemic.

Frankly, access to loans from the PWLB was all too easy. One former council leader described the process as “absolutely bonkers” having requested hundreds of millions of pounds only to receive it “three days later.” No wonder then the Treasury has just this month imposed tighter restrictions on lending. Sadly it came too late for Croydon. The most recent accounts show the council has over £900 million of outstanding PWLB loans. Their investment fund is forecast to deliver a net return of only £82,000 in 2020-21. Once interest payments are factored in, the council could end up making a loss of around half a million pounds.

A tale of two chief executives

Colm Lacey is chief executive and founding director of underperforming Brick by Brick. He was remunerated to the tune of nearly £150,000 in 2018-19, with fellow directors also enjoying six-figure pay packets.

What did a recent strategic review by PwC make of them? It was scathing. “There is currently no financially qualified member of the Board to provide challenge to BBB’s reported performance or forecasts,” they said, citing the “unavailability of robust financial information from BBB.”

A glance at Mr Lacey’s LinkedIn profile may explain why. It shows a long career in the public sector, with no hint of financial qualifications aside from a degree in Economics and Political Science. If PwC’s assessment is correct, then two questions spring to mind. One, why was he chosen for this role? Secondly, why didn’t he appoint at least one financially literate member to the board? Those responsible for his appointment must have their feet held to the fire.

Until September this year, Jo Negrini was chief executive of Croydon Council. Paid £218,358 in 2019-20, she was one of 15 staff receiving over £100,000. Despite overseeing a rise in debt to £1.5 billion that led to the council’s downfall, she left with a severance package reportedly worth £440,000.

As Council Tax increased, both Negrini and Lacey repeatedly failed local residents, but enjoyed gold plated pay at their expense. Council leaders shouldn’t assume that paying top dollar for chief executives will benefit taxpayers. All too often it ends up costing residents dear.

What can councils learn from Croydon?

For starters, councils should only enter into the investment world if they know what they’re doing. They must remember that public money is at serious risk. It’s very welcome that the Treasury is imposing restrictions on PWLB loans; councils should seek to diversify portfolios and demonstrate financial expertise before any investments are undertaken.

Perhaps most importantly of all, council bosses must focus on their statutory responsibilities and stop trying to reinvent the wheel. They must deliver the best services at the best possible value to residents, relentlessly eradicating waste and ramping up efficiency, in order to keep any rises in council tax to an absolute minimum. There are plenty of places they can make a start. By abiding by these simple principles, councils can avoid Croydon’s fate.

David Leaf: In Bexley, we will keep on delivering top rated services – while Labour resorts to scaremongering

30 Nov

Cllr David Leaf is the Cabinet Member for Resources on Bexley Council.

You can tell it’s nearly Christmas, as its always at this time of the year that Bexley’s Labour councillors and their supporters, claim everything is a disaster and that the Council is about to go into bankruptcy.

They’ve actually now been making this claim every year since 2013. Then, they stated that if we were re-elected, the council would either go bankrupt or Council Tax would rise by 40 per cent – none of which happened.

Seven years since they first made that claim, we continue to be rated as an efficient effective Council which delivers value for money for our residents, and our budget plans for 2021/22 are almost completed, four months before they need to be, and our budget will be in balance. Our services continue to be among the best-rated services in local government, and the fruits of investments, such as investing in new street cleaning machinery (which Labour voted against doing), see services improving or being modernised.

Our manifesto pledges from 2018 have all been delivered, and satisfaction from the residents we serve with council services remains high. Roads are being repaired, children’s social care services are helping those in need, vulnerable adults continue to receive care, we remain number one for recycling as we have been for the last 15 years. We’ve also secured funding to build two new schools for children with special needs.

And we’re also delivering new facilities for residents – a new BMX bike park in Barnehurst, a new park, playground, and wildlife area in Sidcup and a new library is being built in Thamesmead. We also lobbied for and now have two Covid testing centres, are working with colleagues on Dartford to reduce infection rates, and are working hard to create centres for vaccinations.

By contrast, in the last month alone, Labour-run Croydon has actually gone bankrupt with a £50 million plus budget gap, Labour-run Transport for London has gone bankrupt for the second time and had to be bailed out by the Conservative Government for the second time. We see Labour-run Lewisham with a £24 million budget gap, Ealing with a £28 million budget gap, Brent with a £29 million one, and Greenwich with a £60 million budget gap over next four years.

No wonder Bexley’s Labour councillors and their supporters want to distract from that shambolic record by real life Labour administrations by trotting out these usual fictions about Bexley, alongside criticising every budget proposal while never actually putting forward any ideas or solutions of their own – the same pattern as usual of course.

What’s shocking this year is that Labour councillors who should know better are frightening the life out of council staff by making all sorts of claims about how they will all lose their jobs; our staff work really hard and to see Labour councillors almost salivating at potential job losses is sickening. Staff I speak to have been really upset by these statements, when what is needed is a calm approach.

Yes, there will be changes to the way the Council is run, or how services are provided.

This is a difficult time for local government, the impact of Covid has been felt across the sector, and across all services. Here in Bexley, much of our income from fees and charges vanished overnight – eg parking income which helps fund highways maintenance and school road safety projects disappeared overnight. There are some Labour supporters who think generating income for services like school road safety projects through parking income is wrong, but of course, as said above, they oppose generating income to help save lives without actually coming up with how to fund it instead.

Like all councils, we have had huge costs appear out of the blue – for example, from scratch we set up a food delivery network, getting hot food to vulnerable residents during the lockdown, making sure those on their own and in need of help got the support they needed. Some 3,000 meals were being delivered, and we had a team of people collecting medicines and prescriptions for those unable to leave their homes. It has cost the council millions of pounds overnight, money that is gradually being recouped from Central Government.

The test of any Council is how they find a way through sudden and unexpected events like this.

One approach is to go into panic mode, hide away and hope everything will be fine (a la Croydon) or lead from the front, make decisions quickly and calmly, work hard all the time to ensure services continue to be delivered, even if in different ways for a while. That is what we were elected to do, and what we have always done.

Yes, there are some difficult choices to make, but as Bexley residents have shown over four elections by electing us with decisive mandates, they trust us to lead the Borough, make difficult decisions when they need to be made, and ensure that we are planning for the long term while making sure services continue to be delivered. The consequences of not doing that can be seen in Croydon, Brent, Lewisham, Greenwich, and at Transport for London.

“The Chancellor has passed the responsibility to us. Can’t complain.” Council leaders respond to the Spending Review.

27 Nov

Thespians are well known for their fear of the name Macbeth. Should someone utter it, the culprit must exit the theatre, spin around three times, spit, curse and then knock on the theatre door to be allowed back in. The correct form is to refer to “the Scottish play”. For council finance officers, the current equivalent is to utter a reference to “Croydon.” Best to protect sensibilities by reference to “a certain south London borough.” Croydon Council has not actually gone bankrupt – neither did Northamptonshire. But it is facing a struggle to balance its budget and thus avoid the men from the Ministry swooping in to take charge. Thus we have a Labour council, a Labour council, obliged to introduce what The Guardian describes as “drastic cuts.” Other councils – especially those who undertook imprudent investments in commercial property – are anxious to avoid getting into the same position.

Thus the Spending Review, which Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered on Wednesday was listened to with particular interest by decision-makers in local government. I have spoken to several Conservative council leaders to gauge the reaction. They included district, county and unitary leaders from north and south. One caveat was that they tended to be waiting to see the “small print” – specifically details of what funding individual local authorities will get when the grant settlement is revealed next month. But there was a favourable reaction to the broad headline announcements. The Chancellor said:

“Local authorities will have extra flexibility for Council Tax and Adult Social Care precept which together with £300 million of new grant funding gives them access to an extra billion pounds to fund social care.”

Looking at The Treasury documents this turns out to mean that “upper tier” local authorities, that do most of the spending, will be able to increase Council Tax next year by up to five per cent – without needing a referendum. That is well above inflation (which is currently under one per cent). The distinction between Council Tax and the “Adult Social Care precept” is illusory – even more so than the distinction between Income Tax and National Insurance. It all goes into the general pot, not a special fund. Nor do councils have to impose either element of Council Tax increase. Some try to imply otherwise with references about applying the “adult social care precept on behalf of the Government”. The Government tends to be indulgent to misleading references of this nature.

Whatever bureaucratic locutions are resorted to, some of the council leaders I spoke to were nervous that people would still notice if their bills were pushed up. One council leader in the south said she would “probably” increase to the maximum allowed, but was nervous about the backlash:

“It’s shifting responsibility to us. It’s allowing us to raise more money. We can’t complain about that. But it will not be an easy decision. Many people are losing jobs. You have households that used to have two incomes coming in with only one. We have people taking wage cuts. The self-employed being hit. For Conservatives putting up the Council Tax is not something we like doing anyway. But if households incomes are rising they shrug it off. But if the family budget is already being squeezed there is more resentment. The alternative would be some difficult choices that would involve scaling back what we do.”

The public sector pay freeze will help. One county council leader from the north said:

“The payroll is a huge cost. We had budgeted for a two per cent increase. So a freeze will make a big difference. That’s more important to us than the extra flexibility on Council Tax – which I will try really hard to avoid using, anyway.”

One of the grim consequences of the lockdown has been an increase in the number of children in care. Domestic violence has increased and thus the “safeguarding” requirement for children to be taken from their families. This has huge financial implications. One council leader told me:

“If people thought about the full picture there would be much more opposition to lockdowns. The full consequences are not appreciated. I do get angry about it. We are trying to do more with early intervention. Once children are in the care system it’s very difficult. Placing them for adoption is very slow if it ever happens, there are all these bureaucratic obstacles. Sort of institutional resistance. The alternative of putting the children back with their families is dangerous. So they just get stuck in care.”

Even when coronavirus is eliminated there is some doubt as to what being “back to normal” will mean. One London borough council leader said:

“The statement did give some recognition that the problems won’t all disappear in April. That there will be an impact for a few more months. But if it is long term, I ask myself if our parking revenues will ever get back to normal. With the Council Tax revenues if people lose their jobs then it gets paid in benefits. What’s more difficult for our finances are the people who are still working but struggling. Quite a few have cancelled the direct debits and just paying when they can afford to.”

Another council leader was preparing to “go into battle” with his finance officers to resist increasing the Council Tax by the full amount:

“I will be told that if we don’t increase the Council Tax then the base will be lower which will restrict the amount of extra cash we can raise in future from these limits in percentage increases. My counter to that is that we have been increasing the number of homes and are due to do so further.”

All those I spoke to welcome the Chancellor “new Levelling Up Fund worth £4 billion.” Sunak explained that:

“Any local area will be able to bid directly to fund local projects. The fund will be managed jointly between the Treasury, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – taking a new, holistic, place-based approach to the needs of local areas. Projects must have real impact. They must be delivered within this Parliament. And they must command local support, including from their Member of Parliament. This is about funding the infrastructure of everyday life: A new bypass. Upgraded railway stations. Less traffic. More libraries, museums, and galleries. Better high streets and town centres. This government is funding the things people want and places need.”

A council leader from the Midlands told me:

“I do like the approach of allowing local decisions on what transport improvements should be a priority. We don’t need devolution – with extra layers of metro Mayors or whatever. We need decentralisation to the local government already in place.”

Just one sour note was struck – from a “red wall” area:

“If it’s a ‘Levelling Up Fund’ then how come any council can apply? Is money from the ‘Levelling Up Fund’ going to be spent in Surrey? It’s ridiculous.”

Expectations are important. The message I got was that though the Chancellor’s help was significant there was still a shortfall that they would have to cope with. But then they never imagined that he would pick up the whole tab for the pandemic. The consensus among council leaders is that they have been left with a difficult challenge – but not an impossible one. Should they need inspiration, they can look at what has happened in Croydon should they fail.

David Simmonds: Cutting early intervention in children’s services would cost more in the long term

25 Nov

David Simmonds is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

Throughout this pandemic, government has extended support for children and families. From furlough, to uplifting Universal Credit, to rolling out the holiday food and activities programme for future school holidays, to keeping vulnerable children learning throughout the pandemic.  These have been appropriate and important interventions. However, the foundations upon which we seek to strengthen and support families are growing increasingly unstable.

Councils are at the forefront of delivering life-changing support keeping children safe and families strong. They are duty-bound to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their families, insofar as this is safe and in the child’s best interests. They are also required to deliver a balanced budget. Before this pandemic, the challenges facing local government finances and rising need for support meant that Children’s Services were placing a significant and unsustainable pressure on local authority budgets.  At a time when funding was falling, councils were being asked to do more and not less. This has only been exacerbated by COVID-19 and despite additional resources from government during the pandemic, there is an acute cash flow problem developing in the sector that means the measures required to balance budgets in year will have a long term impact on children.

Leading children’s charities have also reported recently that those areas the government has promised to ‘level up’ are amongst those where funding for children’s services has fallen the fastest. These also happen to be communities where indicators of demand for children’s services such as rates of domestic abuse, parental mental ill-health, and free school meal eligibility are the highest. Levelling up people and places must mean investing in children and families.

As a former Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, I know the true potential of children’s services: providing relationship support to help keep families together, helping new mothers struggling to adjust to parenthood, working with families and communities to protect children from abuse or neglect, giving children in the care system a second chance at a happy and safe childhood, and care leavers a supported transition into independent living. I also know the impossibly difficult decisions that colleagues in local government are taking right now as they try to balance the books.

They will be thinking about where they can deliver dramatic savings as they have in most years of the past decade. The 2019 Conservative Manifesto committed this Government to champion family hubs. It is exactly this type of provision that is needed, but that councils find impossibly difficult to fund as there is no duty or resource to do so. Perversely, this inability to fund early intervention will increase costs to the public sector in the long run as emerging problems go unaided until urgent and crisis-based intervention is required, adding pressure on other services such as the police and A&E. The life-long human and financial costs associated with childhood trauma can be significant – we ought to reinvigorate our collective efforts to prevent this.

Councils have done an incredible job of maintaining support by a combination of creative partnerships with other councils, charities, and the private sector, but as we see in adult social care, rising costs and market conditions are creating significant headwinds.  We are already well down this path with the numbers of children in care the highest they have been for several decades and rising still, and the cost of care placements skyrocketing as demand outstrips supply; and as costs have risen we have not seen a corresponding improvement in outcomes.

Helping families is core to who we are as Conservatives. As a former Local Government Minister, the Chancellor will be very aware of pressures on council budgets. I recently spoke with a  number of Conservative colleagues heading Children’s Services in local government. They were each honest about the difficulty of the challenge before them and they were all too aware of the cost of failure.  But they were also proud in the knowledge that every day their teams are doing the best they can in unenviable circumstances for their families and vulnerable children. The Spending Review is Rishi Sunak’s moment to deliver urgently needed investment to place children’s services on a sustainable footing.  If we are to build back better for children and families we need to stabilise the foundations. Only then will we truly be able to stand with families through the tough times ahead and turnaround the outcomes of vulnerable children.

Kieran Neild-Ali: We need tougher auditing of Council spending. But a new Quango is not the answer.

13 Nov

Kieran Neild-Ali is a Grassroots Assistant at the TaxPayers’ Alliance

The coronavirus is putting extraordinary pressure on organisations of all shapes and sizes, and the same goes for councils. The demands on them are undoubtedly tremendous. But when it comes to council spending this year, that won’t be the full story. As always, the truth lies buried in their annual accounts.

Local authority audits play an important role in holding reckless council spending to account. Audited accounts reveal how councils are spending your money; publicising how much councillors claimed in allowances and expenses, disclosing revenue and spending, and giving the public a picture of the overall health of the authority. External auditors recently uncovered a scandal in Croydon where the cash-strapped authority loaned a failed housing developer £200 million in just five years and received no repayments. Local authority audits are vital for transparency and accountability.

When the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government commissioned Sir Tony Redmond to review the transparency and quality of councils’ external audits, we had high hopes for a report that would make both holding councils to account, and taxpayers’ lives, a whole lot easier. Instead, we got the complete opposite.

The flagship recommendation of the Redmond Review is the establishment of a new quango, the Office of Local Audit and Regulation (OLAR), to regulate external audits. Simply, a new regulator is not a measured response to the problems facing local authority audits.

Redmond argued that the local audit framework is so damaged that a new “system leader” is needed to regulate every aspect of the auditing process. The review recommends giving the OLAR ‘tools’ to oversee everything including producing annual reports summarising the state of local audit; managing local audit contracts; monitoring and reviewing local audit performance; and determining the code of local audit practice. Effectively regulating the entire local audit sector.

Despite prescribing the quango with such a large brief, Redmond insists the regulator will be “small and focused”. It simply doesn’t add up. With the review prescribing the OLAR such large oversight over the auditing process, it’s erroneous to suggest the quango will be small and cheap. Ministers should be genuinely concerned that the Redmond Review has basically resurrected the retired Audit Commission in all but name.

The Audit Commission was responsible for the external audit framework and ballooned in size from its inception in 1982. The commission appointed external auditors to local authorities, reported on the auditing process, and undertook performance assessments of English councils. By 2009, the Audit Commission cost the taxpayer £28 million and, like all other quangos, was not accountable to the taxpayers who funded it. It was a product of its time: a big lumbering bureaucratic watchdog heavily reliant on state funding.  What was designed to be a voice for taxpayers became a creature of the central state, and a burden to the nations’ finances. Thankfully, the Coalition Government rightly got rid of it.

The breakup of the Audit Commission allowed the creation of smaller autonomous organisations and saved taxpayers money – all this would be undone by the OLAR. The Public Sector Audit Appointments (PSAA) relies on revenue from audit fees charged to local government bodies, and the Financial Reporting Council is funded by the auditing profession, not the state.

History may be repeating itself with the proposed OLAR. By design, the new regulator will consume the majority of auditing responsibilities, micromanaging the process and sending us back to a super quango like the Audit Commission. It won’t be long until the OLAR begins to appoint auditors, consuming the remits of the organisations who’ve already expressed concerns about it. We cannot go back to a ‘nationalised’ external audit framework, resurrecting yet another expensive arm of the state.

Instead of establishing a quango, we must continue to devolve power from central watchdogs to taxpayers themselves – building on the legacy of the coalition’s abolition of the commission.

The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 gave residents a right to come to their town hall and inspect the accounts for themselves, giving rise to ‘armchair auditors’ who keep an eagle eye on how their representatives are spending their hard earned cash. This is especially true in Lambeth where armchair auditors uncovered egregious examples of wasteful spending by combing through the council’s accounts. Residents discovered over £8 million worth of invoices had been lost by Lambeth’s finance department, and that their town hall renovation was over budget by over £50 million.

But councils cottoned on to armchair auditors and began to redact documents, impeding the public from scrutinising them. This is a shameful abuse of power which goes against the open government action plan – which MHCLG themselves have failed to deliver on. Councils must change, and government departments must lead from the front.

Rather than top-down inspections and audits, or further bureaucratic overreach, more could be done to open up local authorities’ data and spending to the press and public – so that citizens can hold them to account. Before signing off a multimillion-pound quango, the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government should first respond to the 2016 Transparency Code consultation and strengthen local government transparency. The recommendations are easily achievable too, like publishing more financial information online to improve the auditing process. It’s beyond belief that a consultation which ended four years ago is now gathering dust and could be completely junked in favour of setting up yet another quango.

Ministers must think carefully about the very real possibility of giving the OLAR an inch and it taking a mile. Unchecked bureaucracies are a menace to the taxpayer. In times of economic hardship, let alone the extreme demands of coronavirus, the government needs to think outside the quango box and implement policies which don’t further burden ratepayers. Local government transparency is as important now as it ever has been.

What Conservative council leaders told us about the virus, Ministers – and lockdowns

2 Nov

Over the last few days, I have been taking soundings from Conservative council leaders about how their local authorities are coping during the coronavirus pandemic. Most of these conversations took place before the announcement of a second national lockdown. I sought to discover the feelings of those council leaders about how central Government has been responding. In order to enable them to respond candidly, I agreed not to name those I spoke to. But the sample did include leaders of county, district and unitary authorities from different parts of the country.

How are the councils coping?

Perhaps surprisingly all those I spoke to were coping well with the financial pressures. Overall they felt the extra funding from the Government had been reasonable. While they were able to keep their council budgets under control and maintain services, some were gloomy about the prospects for high street shops and other small businesses.

Reserves have helped ease temporary pressure on Council budgets:

“I said to the finance officers that we should use some of our reserves. They resisted saying they wanted to save them ‘for a rainy day.’ But I politely pointed out that we are responding to a pandemic. If this isn’t a ‘rainy day’, what is?”

Another council leader said his authority had avoided using reserves but would need to do so if there was a second national lockdown. Revenues from car parks and leisure centres fizzled out during the full lockdown and have only partly returned. There is also the indirect cost of councils from a loss of investment income – which the Government is not compensating for.

A northern county council leader said:

“The big challenge for us has been school transport in rural areas with the social distancing rules. It has really pushed up costs. Funding has been skewed towards deprivation. That means some London boroughs have had more extra money than we have. But our challenges are much greater. That is not to claim that we aren’t managing to meet those challenges. We are.”

In a more positive vein, some pointed to how the crisis had allowed some savings and service improvements. One county council leader from the south of England told me:

“We have saved £400,000 in utility bills from our buildings being empty. We will certainly be looking at reducing our office space in the future – selling buildings or renting out a floor. More home working in future will be popular with our staff. Often they will have work that doesn’t need to be done nine to five. Some with young children might prefer to do it when the children have gone to bed. Why not? I expect sickness levels will go down. There won’t be money for missing work for ‘duvet days.’ That will save costs on agency staff.”

“I think we will do more meetings on zoom even once the crisis is over. But I have spent days when I’ve been staring at a screen for hours on end and that doesn’t improve my decision making or that of my chief executive. Sometimes being able to look out of a window helps you to think. So it’s a balance. Probably there will be hybrid meetings where some councillors and council officers will be in the room and others will join online.

“Some services have improved. For example, registrations of births, deaths and marriages. There used to be a requirement to do these in person. It can now be done over the phone which often people prefer. It would make sense for that change to be permanent.”

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government performance?

The feedback I gathered was broadly favourable.

One unitary authority leader said of the Secretary of State:

“Robert Jenrick is not only coping with the coronavirus pressures but just as important is keeping everything else going. Pressing on with planning reforms. He can walk and chew gum.”

A northern county council leader said:

“The MHCLG Ministers have been good. There is a Whatsapp group for Ministers and council leaders that works well. It gives us a chance to vent our spleen.”

A southern district council leader agrees adding:

“I would give them eight of ten. Some of the expectation management was poor. The ‘whatever it takes…’ stuff. But I do think they listen. That doesn’t mean we can realistically have everything we want. Some of my colleagues muddle that up. They do listen – that doesn’t mean we get all that we ask for.”

One leader of a northern district council felt the moves to prevent landlords evicting tenants was “storing up trouble” which would increase pressure on his housing department:

“If landlords are unable to have the confidence that they can evict if they need to that will drive them out of the market. Tenants who know they won’t be evicted will be more tempted to run up rent arrears – and so more likely to end up thrown out eventually. It’s a time bomb really. We will end up with a lot of evictions combined with a greater shortage of accommodation to place people looking for help.”

How has the Government in general performed?

When it came to a broader verdict on the Government there was stronger criticism. There was criticism over the “mishandling” of free school meals. Also of “high handed centralisation” and “lack of transparency” from the Department of Health over test and trace. Everyone I spoke to indicated they would oppose a second national lockdown (though, as noted above, most of them were contacted before the announcement that it would be taking place). A majority – though not all – were concerned that there were already too many restrictions.

One district council leader in a “tier two” area felt the restrictions were justified but would not back them going further:

“I think the Government has called as best they could. We are trying to back enforcement of the restrictions to give them time to work – although realistically it’s more about persuasion than enforcement. People have to be patient. But a national ‘circuit break’ does not seem to me to be realistic. How would we get out of it? It would be Hotel California.”

But most others felt the restrictions had already gone too far. One commented:

“I would resist being moved to Tier Two. It would destroy our hospitality industry. Who wants to eat out with just their family? Ludicrous. Where is the evidence that moving from Tier One to Tier Two actually saves lives? I haven’t seen any. So the Government would have to come up with something pretty convincing.”

Another council leader adds:

“The 10pm rule on pubs closing doesn’t make any sense. I don’t even attempt to defend it. The Government’s approach should be to only impose extra restrictions if the councils agree. In Essex, they asked for them. So fair enough. My concern is that imposing more and more local lockdowns sort of creeps into a national one.”

The issue of free school meals in the holidays was regarded as a “fiasco”. Again it was felt this could have been averted if greater faith in localism had been shown. The Government could have provided hardship funds for feeding children with discretion on how councils spent it.  Several indignant complaints were made. Though often this was about the political and PR aspect. Few believed that children were genuinely being left to go hungry without getting offers of help. “The community response has meant a lot of food has been left uncollected,” one council leader told me.

Another swipe was taken at the Department of Transport for restrictions on how it’s “active travel fund” can be spent. “A complete nightmare,” I was told. “Very skewed towards urban areas and lots of perverse rules that make it hard to spend the money effectively.”

Perhaps one final comment provides a conclusion:

“I was rather in the middle of the lockdown debate. Certainly, I was sympathetic towards the Government about how difficult the decisions are. I still am to some extent. But if mistakes are made then it is good to learn from them rather than keep pressing on with something that is not working. There is a limit to how long people can be expected to comply with an approach that just causes difficulties without any clear benefits.”