Latest Public Sector News

20.10.16

Clarity needed in autumn statement after summer of speculation

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 16

Simon Edwards, director of the County Councils Network (CCN), sets out how county leaders will respond to the chancellor’s upcoming Autumn Statement.

During the summer months, speculation has been rife within local government on whether government will look to shift direction in a number of key policy areas. So, November’s Autumn Statement comes with plenty of intrigue. 

It will be the first set-piece for the new chancellor to confirm whether there will indeed be a resetting of the deficit reduction programme. We should also expect the first details of the government’s new industrial strategy, a new direction on public service reform to achieve greater social cohesion, and clarity on the next steps for the devolution agenda. 

County leaders have already expressed their desire to support the government in achieving these objectives, and will be responding to the Autumn Statement by setting out the case for policies across three core areas.                              

Efficient and effective services 

The first priority for CCN must be to support our member councils in delivering effective frontline services in the areas facing the most intense demand. 

Many of our members feel the Better Care Fund and the social care precept have not remotely bridged the funding gap in social care, and over the next four years funding pressures facing counties will significantly increase further. 

In CCN’s recent submission to the Communities and Local Government Committee’s inquiry on social care, we highlighted that 88% of adult social care directors in our authorities said their budget situation was either severe or critical. This, of course, then impacts on the NHS. 

One overarching strand to our work will be making the case for the government to deliver fairer funding for their areas and not lock in historic underfunding of county areas. In CCN’s submission to the full business rates consultation last month, a key ask was for the Treasury to work with DCLG to accelerate the needs-based funding review so it can genuinely inform the design of the new business rates system. 

Growth and social inclusion 

Counties want to work with the government to deliver Theresa May’s new industrial strategy, which she has hinted will have a much broader focus beyond the previous administration’s flagship Northern Powerhouse. 

CCN has championed the success of county economies: our members deliver 41% of England’s GVA and have more than 50% of employment in key sectors. But our areas also have their own challenges. Counties have lower productivity than the national average, lower median wages, and contain the highest housing costs outside of London. Huge infrastructure gaps in our regions and years of government under-investment in key transport links have left our areas disadvantaged. Counties want to do more to make England’s economy grow, but lack the tools and investment to do so. 

Our members hope the government will move beyond the narrow focus of cities in its new industrial strategy, and set out a more nuanced approach to promoting economic growth and inclusion to meet the challenges facing county economies. In return, counties can help keep the economy thriving during the uncertainty ahead. 

CCN members will make the case for investment where it is most needed, and pinpoint and deliver the shovel-ready schemes that can deliver growth and return on investment in a short period of time. And our network will be making the case for greater transport investment and better accessibility in county areas, not least in influencing the Buses Bill so it provides flexibility to all areas to reform services without the need for an elected mayor.   

Devolution 

In tandem with their potential for a new fiscal mandate and economic strategy, counties will also call on the government to continue its devolution momentum. 

With a fresh set of ministers in DCLG, counties will be looking for devolution agreements and public service reform proposals that build on the expertise and excellent record of county authorities to tackle some of the most entrenched social-economic barriers in our communities – the societal issues May referenced in her first speech as prime minister.  

Taking into account funding pressures, counties argue it would be risky to fragment county governance when stability and the ability to join up the totality of public services is what we should be trying to achieve. Counties such as Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and Hampshire would therefore welcome clarity on agreements that potentially allow combined authorities to fragment service delivery and threaten the viability of places outside of narrow deals. 

The whole sector would also benefit from clarity on the future of the current requirement for a mayor in return for a devolution deal. We shall be strongly arguing for much greater flexibility for areas to propose accountable but sensible alternatives. 

In just a few weeks the chancellor will deliver his statement and we, in local government, may be clearer on some key issues that have been the subject of much speculation over the summer. 

But the message is clear: if counties are to innovate and transform services, and help fulfil the government’s aim for a buoyant economy, further cutbacks will hinder their ability to support this agenda and will harm essential services the public rely on.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

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