The covid pandemic has felt like a time apart. The before-times have become a blur and between ‘building back better’ and ‘getting back to normal’ it has been hard to remember that local government was in crisis before all this started.
Local government has huge responsibility for the fabric of much of our daily lives. From our streets and parks, the safety of the food we eat, local jobs and public health – the council has been working hard during the pandemic to keep things ticking over. Local government will be, if possible, even more important as we emerge from the pandemic and begin recovery as local public services make it possible for communities to connect, convene and re-construct. But we can’t build back better on shaky foundations. The crisis in local government has been caused, in part, by a failure of successive governments to address public policy which impacts the freedom and ability of local government to do the job it’s meant to do: serve local people.
At the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU), we have explored some of these key, neglected policy areas: the ‘unfinished business’ of the last decade. These include the ‘big three’ foundational issues such as how to fund and deliver social care and its relation with health; the basic mechanics of how to fund local government; and the distribution of power between national, sub-regional and local authorities. In all of these areas, the government has trailed half-formed or incomplete reforms and councils have been left to pick up the pieces, all while operating in conditions of deep uncertainty.
Local government has been at the mercy of austerity. Having cut back and then cut again such that councils were left with £15 billion less in core funding, local government not only had no money, but no funding certainty. Promised policy reviews and medium-term financial settlements have failed to materialise year after year. Councils literally cannot plan beyond the next financial year as promises of rates reform have failed to materialise while the Treasury steadfastly refuses to consider tax alternatives used widely by local government around the world.
The pandemic has been costly – the National Audit Office says that councils are facing a nearly £10 billion shortfall, due to cost pressures and loss of income. Combined with already low reserves from a decade of penny-pinching, some council’s finances are in danger of collapse. Councils were promised that pandemic spending would be covered only for a ‘cost-sharing’ approach to be announced followed by short term sums when the political price became too high. The government’s refusal to cough up for covid safe elections only ended after the majority of councils holding elections this year called for a delay, in part because of cost.
For many councils, the pandemic is just the latest in a series of financial problems. Councils are constrained by outdated and regressive mechanisms of taxation which fall unfairly within and between communities and businesses, and unnecessary interference from central government dictating how they spend their money. At LGIU, we have long argued for a sustainable funding settlement for local government; one which fully recognises the cost of high quality and democratic local services, and which gives councils the flexibility to raise money locally, and the freedom to spend it according to the needs of their residents. Without funding certainty, councils are left scrounging for resources to deal with the pressures at hand or invest in long term recovery.
Adult social care has, of course, been ‘unfinished business’ for what now seems forever. Since the 1990s, successive UK governments have committed to reforming the system, particularly the funding of care, but nothing radical has changed, despite commissions, reviews, green papers, white papers, and numerous expert reports. The UK government’s proposed green paper has been delayed now for several years. Adult social care suffers from chronic underfunding and is now more than ever in need of a new sustainable funding mechanism. The system serves no one well. The needs of individuals are not being addressed in many cases and, for the one-in-four of us who will end up needing care, the personal cost can be catastrophic. The lack of a coherent policy framework means that broader objectives around the health and care of vulnerable adult populations are given short shrift and leaves little room for innovation. Private sector providers were already finding it more difficult to stay afloat and their workers – frontline pandemic heroes – have mean wages and little prospect of advancement.
Without fundamental reform that focuses on dignity, wellness and prevention, including sustainable funding of adult social care, we continue to place unnecessary burdens on our health system. Health and social care are creaking under the pressure and will be dealing with the health and economic fallout of covid for a long time to come.
Perhaps the most important, but less often articulated, piece of unfinished business is the relationship between central and local government. Countless prospective governments have promised radical devolution, but have failed to loosen the grip on power once the ballots were counted. This threatens effective rebuilding of communities and economies, as each place faces a series of complex problems that cannot be solved by one-size-fits-all solutions. Yet, during the pandemic, we’ve seen how important local government is to community and, where local government is organising, supporting and galvanising community efforts, we have seen some of the best pandemic responses. Without strong localism, councils are hamstrung. Councils, despite having public health responsibility, have had to beg for data or have been left out of vital pandemic response planning and implementation. Globally, we have seen that where different tiers of government have acted as partners rather than rivals, trust and public compliance with public health measures are improved.
Of course, these are merely the three core issues. Other areas of both policy and priority have remained unresolved for too long. Sustainable development, housing, public health, democratic engagement and better futures for our children all need to be addressed if we want to emerge from this crisis without irreparable damage. At LGIU, we have been looking at these critical pieces of unfinished business as well as looking at what the future holds for post-covid councils. Putting communities at the heart of public policy is the only way for us to build back better. We can only do that with strong, sustainably-funded local government.