2015 was a significant year for local government, which culminated in the Spending Review and Autumn Statement in November. Below, we examine some of the issues which are likely to be at the front and centre of debate in 2016.
Devolution was a focus for local government in 2015. 38 devolution bids were submitted to DCLG and devolution settlements are still being thrashed out in many cases. Several agreements have been reached, with elected mayors being approved in areas such as the Liverpool City Region. Despite Devolution being positively perceived, there is a danger it focusses too much on cities, due to the majority of deals submitted being city-led. All the deals will of course incorporate towns, however they must ensure that the entire regions they deal with are improved by more localised powers, and not just the major city concerned. This is reinforced by research done by Demos, which has found that three in five towns do not perform as well in socioeconomic terms as their neighbouring city, with the largest discrepancy being present in Castleford when compared to Leeds.
Social care funding remains a problem for local authorities. In an effort to combat this the Government announced in the Autumn Statement that councils will be able to levy a social care council tax ‘precept’ of 2% in order to fund increasing social care costs. If used to its maximum effect this could mean an extra £2 billion in total being raised by councils by 2019/20. Though undoubtedly a welcome boost it remains to be seen whether it will have the desired effect upon the social care funding gap. The Local Government Association does not think it will. It has stated that the social care funding gap would rise by at least £700 million in 2016/17 without the precept. Even if all local authorities levy the precept in 2016/17 only around £400 million would be raised for social care services – still leaving a funding gap of £300 million. The debate over social care funding will undoubtedly continue into 2016 – watch this space.
Despite more autonomy being delivered to local authorities, with the promise of more to come, the familiar spectre of budget constraints still looms. Central government spending on local government will be cut by 6.7% in real terms by 2019/20. The cuts are likely to hit the North East, North West and Yorkshire & Humber regions the hardest, which tests the legitimacy of the much publicised ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda. Furthermore, the challenges which the poorest councils are facing in the short-term have not been alleviated by the Spending Review and Local Government Finance Settlement, and money will only be targeted at these councils towards the end of this Parliament. A New Year, but the same challenges remain.
Of course, no look ahead to 2016 would be complete without considering the implications of social media! It will be interesting to see how councils use social media this year and how local government leaders continue to interact on its various platforms and set out different agendas. Have a read of our latest report on how local authorities are using social media.
2016 is set to be a fascinating year in local government. The progress of Devolution deals and the powers which are transferred with them are likely to take the headlines, but the familiar issue of councils having to do more with less remains. Whatever happens, we will be keeping an eye on proceedings.