Economy and Infrastructure

05.07.18

Brokenshire refuses to promise lobbying Treasury for council cash

Communities secretary James Brokenshire has failed to make firm commitments to lobby the chancellor for more money in the upcoming Spending Review – despite loud warnings that some councils are on the brink of financial collapse and that the bank of local government as a whole is running on empty.

Speaking at the LGA Conference this week, Brokenshire dodged all questions from the audience regarding the sector’s incredibly tight purse.

His keynote came on the same day as a report from the LGA which showed councils face a funding gap of almost £8bn by 2025, with this money needed just to keep services afloat – not even accounting for growing demand or the need to expand and innovate.

He was honest about the challenges councils face, openly acknowledging that there are growing pressures on services and “no easy answers to these issues.” But the secretary of state did not commit to change this through a cash injection, ideally by lobbying the chancellor for more money in the Spending Review.

“I can say to you that I will listen and respond to what you’re telling me. And work with you to really understanding the difficulties as well as the opportunities. We won’t always agree, and I will provide challenge where needed to champion high standards and quality services. But you can be confident that I’ll always stand up for you and local government’s interests,” he told the audience.

Brokenshire admitted that “money has been extremely tight” and that councils have already “gone the extra mile” to delivery efficiencies. But he considered that central government had already responded to these pressures, including through this year’s local government finance settlement, the extension of business rates retention pilots, and the social care green paper delayed until this autumn.

“We’re also keen to work with you on a whole new approach to distributing funding through the review of relative needs and resources. Everyone agrees that the current formula needs fixing. And I want to see a robust, straightforward approach, where the link between local circumstances and resources allocated is clear,” he continued.

“I know that the final outcome won’t necessarily please everyone. But our overriding priority must be to make the best use of resources available.”

Brokenshire, whose father escaped living in “near poverty” by taking up a career in his council and ultimately went on to lead a London borough, said his passion for local government isn’t just professional, but “deeply personal.” He stressed that the sector is an “incredible force for good, not a distant, faceless bureaucracy” and recognised its role as “the bedrock of democracy.”

But his calls for a “renewal and renaissance in local government” did not go down well with the audience, with one delegate saying that he was “astonished” at Brokenshire’s lack of understanding about existing issues and that a more honest debate is needed about how to fund such a ‘renaissance.’

When pressed further about funding, with delegates asking for a firm commitment to knock on the Treasury’s door, he said: “I recognise the pressures that local government deals with: the need for that long-term arrangement for social care, which we will address in the green paper, and also what the Spending Review may be. And that’s why I’m listening carefully and intently to the pressures that I know many of you are experiencing and why I will champion the best interests of local government.”

At last year’s LGA Conference, delegates argued that former communities secretary Sajid Javid’s speech had gone down “like a bucket of cold sick” following claims that councils would lose public trust after the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Top image: Victoria Jones, PA Wire

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