When we agreed to work with LGC on our election webcast, no one would have predicted the poll’s outcome.
However, the result means we can safely assume the Conservative government will continue the journey started in coalition.
Local government will have “far-reaching powers” as part of devolution plans. There will be further integration of health and social care. Further reductions in ringfencing, activities building on the local retention of business rates and removal of “Whitehall burdens” will improve local flexibility.
However, the sector will also face continued funding reductions.
More than 220 individuals participated in the webcast and while it is clear that local government’s agenda is a diverse one, the overriding theme of participants’ live questions to the panel was devolution; from extending it beyond metropolitan cities to expanding it geographically and its impact on health and LEPs.
There are a number of factors to be considered concerning devolution.
Successful devolution is less about geography and more about citizens. If the process starts with the outcomes councils want to achieve, devolution offers an opportunity to take a whole-systems approach to redefining public services. This can increase economic prosperity and enhance local accountability. This need to focus on the citizen was echoed by all panellists.
Although governance will be essential, too much emphasis on this early on could be an unwelcome distraction. Governance structures do not need to be finalised before plans progress; a managed “leap of faith” could be more effective.
While devolution presents a number of opportunities, it will be neither easy nor a panacea to austerity. Taking over health responsibilities will be difficult. The transfer of public health to local government has been successful but other clinical areas are more complex. There must also be wider recognition that as the drive to reduce public expenditure increases, local government must consider cutting a wider range of services.
This requires the sector to be financially sustainable. Local fiscal powers must be increased. Changes to business rate reform need to go further to achieve 100% retention. The removal of the council tax cap could also allow authorities to manage for the longer term. These changes should lead to a review of local government funding, including determining a system which allocates funding more equitably across different areas.
The webcast showed there is a great deal of interest in devolution. It presents exciting opportunities for service improvement but it should not distract from the other challenges facing local government.
David Rees is head of local government services at PA Consulting Group
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