This article was originally published on ConservativeHome.
The local election results were presented as solely a referendum on the Government. From much of the media, there was no acknowledgement of demographic shift and other local nuances. Or the record low turnout – campaigning took place over Easter and a Bank Holiday Monday. One of the reasons that local government is not visible to much of the public is our collective failure to do more to address the big issues such as the cost of living crisis.
Rather than simply talk about what Government must do more (begging bowl politics), every single Council should recognise that they can locally do more themselves. A sense of urgency is needed.
Councils still moan about “austerity”, losing 65 pence in the pound of expenditure since Labour crashed the economy and Cameron and Osborne were elected in 2010. While it is true that Councils have had to make significant savings, the reality is that many (almost always) Conservative councils have absorbed these while continuing to deliver good local services. We should remember that councils still receive huge annual budgets, with nice-to-have additions for often-ringfenced services throughout the year. That means millions, tens of millions, and more of taxpayers’ money. Yes, the special interests of local government will cry, costs are going up steeply. And few people who aren’t in their late middle age can remember the threat that high single-digit (or double-digit) inflation can cause.
Nevertheless, the hard fact remains: Councils can, should, and must do more. So here’s how:
First, freeze Council tax completely for the next two years. Every year local government officers claim “we have reached the bone, councillor.” But every year since 2009 Councils have been “crying wolf”. Independent research has shown time and again that local people give their local council a better rating, year on year. It is not all about spending, it’s about effective spending. Yes, a few Councils – like Slough and Croydon – have gone bust, but that’s down to poor leadership and is not typical across the vast majority of Councils.
Secondly, freeze recruitment for all but specific frontline staff for two years – especially those with a salary of over £90,000 per annum. A myth has been perpetuated by unions that you save money by recruiting permanent staff on gold-plated pensions rather than using temporary staff. As I saw as a member of my Council’s Pensions Superannuation Committee, the long-term cost of this gold-plated overhead will be ruinous for local taxpayers over the next 40 years. Public Health is, I am afraid, especially guilty. I was Westminster Council’s first Public Health Cabinet Member a decade ago. NHS pay, conditions, and pensions were so generous as they transferred over to Councils that even council officers were envious. Little has changed. I’m still astonished how relatively basic functions are performed by senior staff rather than working-level staff right across the public sector.
Thirdly, link future annual increases in budgets to specific progress in mirroring the policies of neighbouring, better-performing Councils. This is much easier said than done, but there are few things more guaranteed to make house builders tear their hair out than where Council A has user-friendly planning policies but a neighbouring authority’s Planning Department is slow, opaque or both. Likewise, residents notice when street cleanliness is fantastic in one Council and dreadful a few roads down in a neighbouring borough. I appreciate that EU Procurement – which is still in operation in all but name – and the length of contracts, has made progress slow in most (but I stress not all) councils. However far more benchmarking should be done in this way.
Furthermore, Adult and Children’s services for the most vulnerable (the largest budget area) are, most would agree, far too fragmented and the fact that private equity is investing with relish illustrates that value for money has a long way to go. Bi-Borough Services are possible as my two local Boroughs Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster have shown for a decade.
I have deliberately saved Council re-organisation until last. It is widely agreed that William Hague’s opportunist policy as Leader of the Party 20 years ago, opposing unitary authorities, was right to lapse. But the eradication of district and county councils must be driven locally with local consent. Indeed it already is. Top-down re-organisation is almost always a failure, as Andrew Lansley proved with the NHS.
In defence of councils, Covid has, over the last two years, seen driving efficiencies slipping down the priority list. But now, with a cost of living crisis for so many, merely lobbying for the Chancellor to fill their begging bowls is not enough. All Councils must do what we can to play our fair part. Unfortunately, in London, councils must do this with one hand tied behind their backs as the Mayor of London continues after six years to do very little except put Council Tax up – by 8.8 per cent this month alone.
We are at the start of a new four-year term in all 32 London Boroughs as well as many other Councils across the country. So, let us up the momentum – and really take the lead in dealing with the cost of living crisis facing so many.