david rees and sir merrick cockell | local government chronicle | 30 april 2015
By their very nature, party manifestos are low on detail and high on headline-grabbing policies
They assume their party will have a majority and their leader becomes prime minister.
In the past, minor party manifestos were largely irrelevant; so irrelevant that some of their own party leaders never bothered to read let alone write them. Now, those manifestos could contain the lines in the sand that determine the make-up and key policies of a future coalition. There could be SNP, Ukip, Democratic Unionist Party or Liberal Democrat commitments in 2015 manifestos that end up being the defining policies of a Conservative or Labour led administration.
How will this affect local government? What are the areas of common ground around local public services?
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The first point to note is that despite accounting for a quarter of public expenditure, local government itself is not a priority for the parties. It got no mention in the leaders’ debate. This is probably a good thing and indicates the success of local government in weathering 40% government funding cuts since 2010. Were local government failing, political parties would be happily declaring its death and be proposing populist policies for a complete reorganisation.
In fact, all parties are putting forward policies to decentralise power. Whether these are aimed at creating more northern powerhouses or as an English response to Scottish nationalism, the direction is the same even if the pace and detail varies.
The next critical point is that there will 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.
Looking at specific service delivery, 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 past five years in finding innovative solutions to the social care challenge.
All this presents an opportunity. 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 accountable local public services rather than local authorities simply acting as agents of national government, to the benefit of those who use those services.
David Rees is head of local government services and Sir Merrick Cockell is a senior adviser at PA Consulting Group.