sir merrick cockell and DAVID REES | The mj | 5 may 2015
This article first appeared in The MJ
Fixed-term parliaments are alien to national politicians but entirely normal for those working at local level. Whether local government is elected by thirds or all-out every four years, everyone knows exactly when they will be up for election.
That predictability means they plan around the electoral cycle. Wise councils do not introduce revolutionary new ways to recycle in their final six months and developers do not aim to take a major planning application to committee in January of an election year.
In contrast, the historic ability of an incumbent prime minister to go to the country at the point of maximum advantage for their party had the potential to either throw public services into sudden confusion or lead to undue caution. It meant decisions were put off to accommodate an election which no one knew when exactly it would happen. The private sector had to build this risk into its relationship with Government.
Now, the fixed-term parliament has allowed political parties to start writing their manifestos knowing exactly when they needed to launch them. They have planned policy pre-announcements from the final round of party conferences through to the Autumn Statement and Spring Budget.
Another change in approach is being driven by the possibility of another coalition or minority government. By their very nature manifestos are low on detail and high on ready-to-go, simply explained, headline-grabbing policies. Inevitably, they are written on the basis that their party will have an overall majority and their leader will become Prime Minister. In the past, that meant that fringe party manifestos were largely irrelevant; so irrelevant that some of their own party leaders never bothered to read, let alone write them.
Yet now, what may once have been of limited interest could contain the lines in the sand that determine the make-up and key policies of a future coalition. Or in the absence of formal arrangements, could be the basis of vote-by-vote agreements following voting through a broad-brush Queen’s speech. There could be SNP, UKIP, DUP or Liberal Democrat commitments in 2015 manifestos that could end up becoming the defining policies of a Conservative or Labour-led administration post 7th May.
So how will this affect local government and what are the areas of common ground around local public services that the parties are putting forward for the next Parliament?
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Despite accounting for a quarter of public expenditure, local government itself is not a priority for the political parties; it received no mention in the set-piece leaders’ debate and hardly anything since. This could be seen as a good thing and indicates the success of local government in weathering (and delivering) over 40% Government funding cuts since 2010. Should local government be failing, political parties would be happily declaring its death and be proposing populist policies for a complete reorganisation.
In fact the opposite is happening. Though not overtly promoting the merits of local government, all parties are putting forward policies to de-centralise power. Whether these are aimed at creating more ‘Northern Powerhouses’ around cities nationwide or as an English response to Scottish nationalism, the direction is the same, even if the pace and detail varies.
There will also be no change in the reduction of funding for local government. There may be new ways of accessing existing funding, but these will still be under the firm control of the Treasury which will decide who gets the rewards and how they are earned.
Looking at specific service delivery, it seems clear that the integration of care and health both in funding and delivery will continue at pace. The combination of an ageing population and an unaffordable and incoherent artificial divide between prevention, social care and medical needs cannot be ignored. The only chance of success is by pooling budgets and local government can offer health providers the experience of its success over the last five years in finding innovative solutions to the social care challenge.
This all presents an opportunity for local government. As power shifts to local areas, however they are defined, there is a chance to foster innovation and break down traditional silos in new forms of partnerships. That, in turn can lead to the provision of local public services rather than simply local government to the benefit of those who use those services.
Sir Merrick Cockell is a senior advisor and David Rees is head of local government services at PA Consulting Group