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22.06.17

Queen’s Speech ‘dragged councils into Whitehall uncertainty’ as key laws dropped

Key figures across local government and the health sector have sharply criticised yesterday’s Queen’s Speech for its blatant lack of information around fundamental issues, such as devolution, business rates retention and social care reform.

Jonathan Carr-West, the chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), argued that when it comes to local government, the speech “hovers around the edge rather than directly confronting the big questions”.

“Local government thus finds itself dragged into the uncertainty that is afflicting Parliament,” he stated. “Councils can and will continue to deliver the local services that people depend upon.

“But if local government is to plan effectively for the future, it desperately needs more clarity on the big issues than is promised by [the] Queen’s Speech.”

There were no firm proposals on social care funding and no mention whatsoever of devolution, as well as no extra detail on the journey towards 100% business rate retention.

“All of these issues are urgent and growing more urgent by the month,” said Carr-West.

Jo Miller, president of Solace and CEO of Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, agreed, announcing that she was disappointed that “key legislation – absolutely fundamental to ensuring the future sustainability of local government – has now been dropped”.

“Local government urgently needs clarity around our future funding – at present we simply face a cliff edge from 2020. This must urgently be resolved,” she added.

“On social care, we have now had a number of reviews and proposals, yet nothing has stuck and huge uncertainty still remains. We must find a long-term, sustainable system for the future, whilst in the short term we need certainty on the future of the Better Care Fund.

“Overall we need clarity and certainty as soon as possible to enable us to plan properly and serve our people well.”

The general consensus across councils was no different. Lord Porter, the chair of the LGA, stressed that is was “hugely concerning” that the government did not reintroduce the Local Government Finance Bill in the speech.

“The bill was setting out the framework towards allowing local government in England to keep all of the £26bn in business rates it raises locally each year and providing powers for mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London Authority to raise an infrastructure supplement,” he explained.

“Councils are facing an overall £5.8bn funding gap by 2020. The government needs to commit to using its existing powers to keep working with local government to continue these vital reforms. Local government collectively must keep every penny they raise locally in taxation to spend on local services to help secure the long-term financial sustainability of councils and ease the pressure facing the public services our communities rely on. Plans to develop a fairer system of distributing funding to councils must also continue.”

The UK’s exit from the European Union, which took centre stage of the speech, will have a “significant impact” on local government, Lord Porter added, meaning councils must play a key role in deciding whether to keep, change or scrap existing EU laws that impact public services.

“[Brexit] must lead to new legislative freedoms and flexibilities for councils so that residents and businesses benefit,” he said, but added: “While negotiating Brexit will be a huge challenge for the government, it cannot be a distraction from the challenges facing our public services. The day-to-day concerns of our communities go far beyond Brexit.”

Cllr Claire Kober, chair of London Councils, echoed Lord Porter’s fears around the lack of information around council finance reforms. While she said it was still likely that the proposed review of the needs assessment will continue, it is nevertheless concerning that “there has been no signal as to the broader reforms to the future funding of local government that should sit alongside that review”.

Health service leaders also reacted with strong words. The Royal College of Physicians welcomed commitments to mental health legislation, but questioned why Whitehall had failed to address the wider issues facing the NHS, including regulation of new health professionals.

The Patients Association went further still, with its new CEO, Rachel Power, arguing that the speech revealed a government “in denial about the major risks facing patients, their families and carers” and unwilling to recognise the breadth of Brexit’s impact.

(Top image c. PA Images)

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