Comment

18.12.18

A fair future for counties

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2019

Simon Edwards, director of the County Councils Network (CCN), reflects on the CCN’s conference and looks ahead to the Spending and Fair Funding reviews.

In last month’s PSE, I wrote that councils are increasingly delivering ‘less for less’ and will continue to do so without additional resource.

Now, itʼs fair to say that the financial situation is a little less bleak. The sector has secured some significant concessions from government in October’s Budget, with ministers making available an extra £1.6bn flowing directly to local authorities this year.

CCN has been at the forefront of the debate. Our members, alongside the LGA, put together a compelling case for additional funding, and we secured prominent coverage of the financial pressures on councils during the summer. Alongside this, our evidence-based research and work behind the scenes has clearly had a positive influence.

Yet despite this positivity – and the new relationships forged between the sector and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government (MHCLG) – we should be under no illusions of the short-term nature of this funding. Local government faces a substantial funding gap that’s projected to rise, and the long-term prospects facing upper-tier authorities still remains uncertain.

It was in this context that CCN’s annual conference took place, where we launched our new campaign, ‘A Fairer Future for Counties.’ We released emerging findings from our upcoming work with PWC LLP, which will measure the extent of financial pressures facing councils into the middle of next the decade.

Initial findings revealed a major cost pressure for upper-tier local authorities in caring for adults with severe learning disabilities, with costs projected to rise by £2bn by 2025; and counties are bearing the brunt of half of these additional costs. These figures show the scale of the long-term challenge facing councils in just one area, and the need for substantial additional resources in the Spending Review.

The bourgeoning relationships CCN has with the MHCLG was illustrated by James Brokenshire declaring that he “wants to work with counties as we look ahead to the Spending Review.” CCN and our members will be doing our utmost to arm ministers with the evidence they need to make a compelling case for additional resources to the Treasury during the Spending Review negotiations.

As well as arguing for a much bigger pie for all in local government in the Spending Review, CCN will also be making the case for a complete reset of funding and a fairer distribution of resources that genuinely reflects the current and future needs of all councils in the Fair Funding Review.

‘A Fairer Future for Counties’ does not equate to an ‘unfair’ future for everyone else: our members’ recent interventions shows that when they make the case for additional resource, the whole sector can benefit. I think everyone agrees that the current formulae are not only opaque, but out-of-date and inequitable. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to get this right, and we will work with any colleagues across the sector to these ends.

Separately, the campaign is much more than a pure focus on funding. It aims to present counties as ‘strategic authorities’ in a rebooted devolution agenda. With their transport and infrastructure powers, counties remain the focal point of economic growth in their local communities.

Our campaign will set out what benefits counties can bring not only to their communities, but to the country as a whole, working alongside cities and combined authorities.

With counties empowered as leaders of place overseeing significant transport functions, devolved skills budgets, and having a strong role in planning, they will have the tools to generate economic growth, address social mobility and skills mismatches, and help accelerate the housebuilding agenda.

With the Spending Review now within sight, itʼs important that the future is not only fairer for counties, but fairer for local government as a whole.

 

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