Government must decide what it expects from our Councils

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend my first Local Government Association Annual Conference. The Local Government Association (LGA) are an organisation which over 400 councils nationwide belong to. Their role is to lobby Government on behalf of Councils and provide support and training where required. For me the event was a fantastic opportunity to speak with peers and colleagues about the issues and challenges we all currently face in Local Government. Not surprisingly Northamptonshire County Council (NCC), and its woes, were well known by almost everyone at the event with a session running aptly named “Lessons to be learned from Northamptonshire!”

Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire MP speaking at the LGA 2018 Annual Connference

The thing that struck me however was that rather than berate NNC’s failings, most other Councils, regardless of political control, were very sympathetic to our local problems. Perhaps the most alarming thing was the fact was that nearly all the top tier Councils I spoke to were in a similar position and many believed that they were perhaps just 2-3 years behind being in NCC’s current financial state. In fact the LGA reported that Councils nationwide will face a £5.8 Billion pound funding gap by 2020.

This week NCC found themselves in utterly unprecedented territory when they issued its 2nd Section 114 Notice. The section 114 notice bans all new expenditure at Northamptonshire County Council, with the exception of statutory services for protecting vulnerable people. The council will now have to take on the task of removing a further 60 to 70 Million Pounds from its budget in order to balance the books. I recently wrote to NCC, along with our Local MP and County Councillor objecting to the proposed gritting reductions but given this latest news it seems very unlikely this decision will be changed.  Furthermore given the on-going financial situation it’s entirely feasible that the Council may eventually end up only offering services for it has a statutory responsibility with more and reductions in services it has traditionally provided.

Myself with Andrew Lewer MP & Cllr Andrew Kilbride objecting to NCC road gritting reductions.

This begs an important question, especially as we move to Local Government re-organisation in the county, of what exactly do the Government want and expect our Councils to provide? My experience since being a Councillor is that most folk care about two main services – The state of our Roads and environment/waste collection. Why Bin Collections? Because for the vast majority of us this is the only interaction we have with our Council’s and it’s something that directly impacts our households. Why Roads? Because they are something we all use every day and their condition is very obvious with the impact of poor roads being felt literally! But the reality is that our vast majority of our Council tax does not go on these services and its probable that less and less will. In fact I’ve heard estimates from officers that the new Unitary Councils, (in whatever form they take), may end up spending upwards of 80% of their budgets on Adult Social Care and Children’s services. We know those costs are only going to increase as we live longer and our population ages.

Like many others, I am hugely concerned that moving forward services which have always been delivered by Councils will come under further threat. While I support the move to unitary, which will save money and improve efficiencies, the change will also mean that the protective buffer between these services and ones such as bin collections will no longer exist. It’s feasible that the new council in 10 years’ time will be forced to make decisions that were previously considered completely unpalatable. Simply put while unitary will help it will not solve these fundamental and underlying issues.

After NCC issued its second Section 114 Notice some opposition Councillors have called for resignation of Leader Cllr Matt Golby, despite the fact he’s only been in the job for 3 months. This just shows that they fail to grasp the true gravity of the situation- this is a national issue not a local one. Yes NCC and its previous Leadership made some historically bad decisions which resulted in the authority being further along the line than others but the reality is that the Government need to make some tough decisions and provide radical changes to what they expect Local Councils to do on the funding they are provided with. This is a national problem and as such needs a national solution.

Cllr Matt Golby, leader of Northamptonshire County Council

If Government continue to expect Councils to provide Adult Social Care for example, they must fund it properly or take the responsibility from them completely and move it to a different or new body. Residents rightly expect that certain services should be provided with their council tax- it simply doesn’t cut it to say that roads wont be maintained because adult social care eats up all the budget.

In our local case no amount of streamlining and Local Government reorganisation will fix it. Government must use the crisis at NCC to spearhead a new beginning as to how we look at the funding and services provided by Local Government. If no action is taken I have no doubt we will sadly see more and more cases like NCC, regardless of how well run Councils are run, up and down the country.

Cllr Hill