The furore around Ministerial reshuffles has all but disappeared which surely provides our new Ministers with some much needed space to start thinking about setting their agendas for the duration of this political term. DCLG in particular have seen some considerable turnover with the departure of Housing Minister Mark Prisk, Communities Minister Don Foster and the arrival of Baroness Stowell of Beeston, Stephen Williams MP and Keighley Kris Hopkins MP.
A quick look at an election countdown clock reveals there are officially 551 days until 7 May 2015, and with both Coalition parties’ political capital being all but spent this is a challenging time to be a new Minister and effect some sort of change.
With this in mind, I thought it would be an interesting time to reflect on what seems to have worked and what hasn’t over at Eland House during the past 3 years and think about the priorities for our Government’s remaining time in office.
Devolution and Parish Councils
A successful aspect of Central Government’s localism agenda has been the devolution of power to a localised level. Boosted by the success of high profile urban parish council such as the Queens Park Parish Council in Westminster, the Government has just announced plans to make it even easier for community groups to form Parish Councils across the UK. New measures announced last month include:
- Cutting the number of petition signatures needed to start the new parish creation process by a quarter from 10% of the local population to 7.5%
- Reducing the time local authorities can take to decide on parish council applications to a maximum of a year
- Making it easier for community groups that have created a neighbourhood plan to kick-start the process by removing the need for them to produce a petition
Whilst we are by no means seeing a national wave of communities looking to take back powers, there is a clear appetite within some community groups to formalise their role within local decision making and the Government has successfully addressed this.
Council Tax Freeze
It’s safe to say that the council tax freeze has been one of the most challenging elements of local government funding over the past three years. The Government claims that overall, the council tax freeze deals since 2010 have amounted to a 9.7% real terms cut in council tax. This has placed large pressures on local authorities to reduce the scale and size of their operations and find alternative sources of income. This summer’s spending review committed the freeze to continue until 2016, however we are seeing an increase in councils defying this. In March 2013 a survey by The Sunday Telegraph found a total of 124 local authorities – more than a third of all councils in England – have decided to increase their council tax bills as a way of raising revenue. It appears that while this has been effective way of keeping taxes low for the UK population, the rebelling councils indicate that this type of tax freeze is not sustainable in the long term.
Weekly bin collections
One of the Government’s flagship policies for local government was to reintroduce weekly bin collections. In February 2012, the Government set up a £250 million fund to help local councils to provide a weekly waste collection service. Out of 353 councils, only 118 submitted applications for funding. A briefing paper published by the House of Commons Library in February suggested that despite this addition funding, it was unlikely that the majority of councils would move back to weekly collection. Alternatively the paper suggested that this extra funding could also be used to improve recycling and other elements of standard weekly waste collection services. While there is a clear health and safety imperative for some forms of household waste, such as food waste, to be picked up on a weekly basis, local authorities have effectively demonstrated that fortnightly waste collections have not damaged customer experience and there is not a strong case for reverting to weekly collections.
Adult and Social Care
Notwithstanding financial pressures, there is no doubt that the greatest challenge facing our public services is our country’s changing demographics. By 2030 there will be double the number of people over the age of 85 as there are now. ASC budgets are already being squeezed and local authorities will need to bring forward innovative and cost effective options in order to manage demand and continue to provide high quality services. As it stands, the Social Care Act still doesn’t address the cost implications for public sector going forward and local authorities will be looking to Central Government to take a lead on this.
Innovation is not lacking: there are a number of solutions on the horizon including better integrated health and social care and digital solutions which empower communities to take a greater role in looking after each other. This thoughtful and comprehensive article from Shirley Ayres is a perfect example of this where she sets out a number of digital tools currently being developed to support people living with dementia.
Over the coming 551 days I can only hope to see some targeted support from our new Ministers to enable councils to continue to deliver their priorities for their local communities under these increasingly difficult circumstances.