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Solace blog

10th August 2016

A new horizon or more of the same?

A little over six years ago, we embarked on a Coalition Westminster Government for the first time in 65 years. Sixteen months ago, we saw the first Conservative Government in nearly a generation. Within the last few weeks, Theresa May entered Number 10 – as the sitting tenant, not a visitor – the second female Prime Minister in our history. I make that point because of the time that took to happen, not the fact of its happening.

So, has this been a period of unprecedented change for us in local government – or is it business as usual? Well, one could argue that with the changes in political colour, the direction, aims, and means of securing policy change has altered – especially from May 2015, when the blues were released (apparently) from the yellow shackles.

But has that been the reality?

As far as local government is concerned, the direction of financial travel remains resolutely downwards. There has been no reversal in the reduction (to £nil by 2020/21) in Revenue Support Grant; it is clear that the New Homes Bonus (a simple and effective tool for energising the local house-development market) will reduce, although the detail is still to be published months after the consultation ended; and the much-hyped 100% Retention of Business Rates (BRR) is very likely to be an illusion – certainly in two-tier areas. In any case, there are a number of consultative hurdles for everyone to jump before there is anything of substance for 2020/21.

What is clear is that we will be required to accept more responsibility, disproportionate to the overall funding to be added by BRR. Nothing new there!

Mrs. May has decided (understandably, perhaps) that she wants to take a fresh look at some of the policies and proposals; Hinkley Point (not in my patch!) is the highest profile so far. That may or may not (pun intended) be indicative of other things to come, which would be an uncertainty beyond Brexit. I am not holding my breath on any positive U-turns for local government, but it seems that it is already slowing down consultation on and implementation of matters in train already, such as Devolution, as we get pushed down the priority list.

We have a new Chancellor of the Exchequer and a new Secretary of State. Philip Hammond wants to undertake a ‘fiscal reset’ and Sajid Javid has stated his priorities as ‘Devolution and Home Ownership’.

On the economy, the doom and gloom apparent in some quarters in the early hours of 24 June could lead to further reductions in funding from both Westminster and, certainly in future, from Europe. It is a given that there won’t be any increases, but we should be grateful, at least, that there has not been the additional ‘austerity budget’ threatened – and I use the term deliberately – by George Osborne.

As for the priorities of the Secretary of State, Devolution (if pursued in its present form) would be welcome, especially if he is prepared to let go of the reins of central power more than has been evident so far (not a criticism of Greg Clark; more of the Treasury). ‘Home Ownership’, whilst very laudable, may prove to be a mirage; especially if he sticks to the same policy package – a package which will enable home-ownership for an additional few, whilst placing more pressure on individual finances and Council Homeless teams, with fewer resources to deliver for our most vulnerable individuals and families.

And then there is Brexit, which Mrs. May has helpfully if tautologically, defined for us. Strangely, it is here that I find more grounds for optimism; not because of Brexit per se but in spite of it. The economy was expected to struggle – there are no significant signs of that. The Bank of England has acted wisely to stabilise, without panic. And what of local government? We have planned ahead very successfully for a number of years; always expecting the worst, and delivering the goods year after year. We continue to do that – and do it very well. Brexit actually gives us the chance to have our finest hour, as we rise to the challenge yet again. There is nothing like a good ‘crisis’ to bring the best out of local government. We have done it again and again, facing ‘crises’ generated by others. Remember 2008 and its aftermath? But, let’s be honest, this is nothing like a crisis; other people are talking the country down and creating their own doubt and uncertainty. Our experience should teach us to show more confidence; talk ourselves up and lead by positive example! The end result might surprise the doubters: that local government, and the economy, are even more successful!

By Steve Atkinson, Chief Executive, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council and Solace Deputy Spokesperson on Evidence-Based Policy