Councillor Keli Watts and I have just returned from the annual Local Government Association Conference [LGA] in Bournemouth. This is a cross-party organisation made up of councils from across the country and is attended by leading councillors and officers, and comprises various seminars, debates and fringe meetings.
Apart from the uncertainty of Brexit and the financial pressures that may result (the chair of the LGA, Conservative Lord Gary Porter stated “no one knows what the referendum result will mean for local authorities” and everyone was worried about the further financial pressures that could result), the big two topics of conversation were Devolution and Business Rates Retention.
Devolution is about powers being passed down from central government to local councils. Greg Clark the secretary of state addressed the conference and promised not to impose any kind of devolution deals on areas if they did not want it, but is still driving forward with his idea for elected mayors having huge amounts of powers over combined authorities covering massive areas, which is a model a lot of councillors from all parties (including myself) are not keen on. The concept of devolution itself however is a good one, with powers perhaps around transport and health services being decided upon locally.
This is part of the current debate about Northamptonshire councils perhaps merging and perhaps becoming one or two big unitary councils rather than one County Council and lots of district and borough councils as it is at the moment, and then maybe those new councils joining in a formal working arrangement with other councils in the region to become a combined authority. So far around the country ten devolution deals have already been agreed and signed off by the government and cover about 30% of the population. In Northamptonshire we are still some way behind others.
BUSINESS RATES RETENTION
The idea behind business rates is that councils will get to keep all this money locally and become entirely ‘self funding’. At the moment half of the money goes to central government and may or may not find its way back in the form of various grants. There are questions around this including how it will be split in two tier areas (like ours, with both a borough and county council), as well as bigger questions about how the scheme will be managed nationally, because the areas with the largest need are often the areas that will be least able to raise money while other affluent areas with less social need will get much more income.
There needs to be some sort of top-up system in place where rich authorities pay to subsidise poor ones but this clearly needs to be fair, and one suggestion is that this is done regionally and not nationally which could easily disadvantage poorer areas that clearly need more help.
Other issues are around the idea that council’s may be able to offer a discount on their business rates for the first time which sounds great in principle although it's actually rather a simplistic approach to economic redevelopment and may end up with neighbouring councils competing with each other in a race to the bottom with gaps in funding having to be made up by council tax payers.
I raised my concerns about this and also that local Kettering Tories might see this as a simple way to benefit business without looking at the long term consequences, in which case my inclination would be to oppose it and was worried this opposition may be undermined if other Labour controlled areas supported discounting. In response the leader of the LGA Labour Group agreed and hoped we could come to an agreed position once more details were forthcoming.
Another major risk to any new system which doesn’t appear to have been addressed yet is the danger of one or two major businesses in an area closing with the massive impact this would have on a local council. In Kettering we are already reliant on a couple of big businesses, Weetabix and Morrison’s for example, but if that reliance were even greater, the consequences in them closing or moving would be dramatic.
The government don’t seem to have any answers to these problems yet and this uncertainly isn’t helped by the lack of leadership currently being shown from Whitehall. These are big issues that will have huge effects on Kettering and I will try to keep people up to date with changes as they come about.
ADULT SOCIAL CARE
The issues described above about funding from business rates not being able to be found in the areas it is needed the most is similar to problems in Adult Social Care. The social care precept (the new 2% levy on top of council tax bills) has generally been welcomed by councils as a small way of mitigating part of the outrageous cuts from central government over the last few years which has left many council’s (included Northants County Council) with huge financial black holes in this area. But it has thrown up many anomalies, such as that in two tier areas like ours, councils can’t raise as much as unitary and metropolitan areas where the responsibility for adult social care sits with just one council, and that in affluent areas where the need for services is less, they can raise more money than they need. In fact there are still a couple of councils that have not charged the new precept even though overall everybody agrees the £300m it raised last year was still nowhere near the amount needed to fill this particular hole in public finances in total.
We were told that demand for adult social care has risen on average 4% a year every year since the war but we are now facing much higher demands brought about by an ageing population. The government do have plans to provide another £1.5bn from the Better Care Fund to help with this, but not until 2019/20 but the view from the conference was that this is too late with council’s desperately needing to take action now. A recent report has shown that many councils have actually done very well to cope with the financial cuts in these areas so far, but there real concern about the next couple of years. Harold Bonner (the President of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services) warned us that the lack of funding has the potential for a perfect storm in adult care.
PROTECTING COMMUNITIES FROM EXTREMISM
We went to a very interesting seminar about counter terrorism and extremism given by a high ranking police officer from the Met and a senior civil servant from the Home Office. They discussed things like the governments ‘prevent’ strategy and how vulnerable young adults could be radicalised and what was being done to stop this, but also looked at the rise of extremist organisations such as Britain First., and in both instances the proportion of people involved in questionable behaviour with mental health issues was staggeringly high.
While clearly not a new problem, the surge in hate crime since the Brexit result is a concern and was mentioned by several speakers throughout the conference including the Tory Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who had said the “referendum didn’t create the divisions in our country but exposed the differences already there”. I’m pleased to announce that in a couple of weeks the Labour Group at Kettering Borough will be proposing an anti-racism statement which will be seconded by the Conservatives so that in Kettering at least we will make it clear that any kind of racism or hate crime for is unacceptable regardless of its motivation.
The topic of housing came up again and again and the Secretary of State spoke about turning around the 30 year deficit in house building and went on to speak about the need to speed up implementation of planning decisions and argued one way forward may be to make more smaller sites available to small local developers rather than big companies who often sat on undeveloped sites for years. And although that specifically doesn’t address the need for more social housing he did go on to say he wanted to see a much more prominent role from both councils and housing associations in building housing which I was pleased to hear.
However despite that comment, 85% of councils recently surveyed say they expect to build less housing in the near future and the chair of the LGA seemed to question his own parties policy when saying about the housing bill that “it’s probably true it’s not the best ever piece of legislation”. On a similar topic Cllr. Maggie Don (the Labour group’s housing spokesperson) and myself are meeting shortly with the head of housing at Kettering Borough to discuss exactly these sort of issues, because improvements in the council’s housing policy is something we are determined to push for. It’s great that five new council houses are being built in Kettering this year but these are the first for over a decade and there is a massive shortage locally at the moment.
Overall the conference was interesting, worthwhile and enjoyable. There really is a great benefit to be had in meeting with and listening to views of other councillors from around the country from all political groups and both Keli and myself came back thinking that as local councillors we are actually part of something much bigger both as part of local government itself but also as part of a group of Labour Councillors who up and down the country are working hard both in power and opposition to bring about changes for people in their day to day lives. Local Government has a huge role in delivering public services, a view that is not always recognised by some, including at times those in Whitehall.