May’s local government legacy

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Today Theresa May decided to step aside as it has become increasingly clear that she can’t command or secure the loyalty of a bitterly divided Conservative Party. In her resignation speech she sought to look at her achievements beyond the Brexit debate, characterising her government as “not just for the privileged few”.

She boasted about the increase in housing delivery and the support the government has given to first time buyers to get on the housing ladder. All laudable and commendable, albeit there is plenty more to do, and she has arguably failed to address the rental market in any meaningful way.

Mrs May also highlighted that the Government has successfully reduced the country’s current account deficit and managed to start reducing the national debt. And maybe she has. But for those of us focused on Local Government, the report by the County Councils Network published earlier this week should have been a wake up call.

The CCN report, produced by PwC, found that just to maintain a basic level of services councils are going to have to find a collective £50bn in the next five years from efficiency savings, property sales, new sources of revenue and their reserves. This is probably already unachievable. And it doesn’t allow for any of the improvements we may expect as the country continues to advance, leaving council services and those dependent on them falling behind.

The councils bearing the brunt of the pressure are those delivering statutory services, such as care for the elderly, infirm and vulnerable children. Those dealing with these issues – counties, unitaries and metropolitan boroughs, have seen vast increases in local need as the population gets older and more children need support and the trend is only going one way.

Some authorities have already been very publicly caught out with the likes of Northamptonshire having to resort to extraordinary measures to make ends meet. Other authorities have baulked at the cuts and “efficiency savings” which they have been forced to make. Others have been forced to merge. Those brave enough to grasp the nettle have seen an erosion of public trust, protests from local residents, and bloody regime changes.

With more austerity still due to bite, we may force more people to depend on the state, and we will have fewer resources to help them with. This doesn’t seem like a government which is providing the security, freedom and opportunity that Mrs May says is her driver. It seems like a government which is failing local authorities and failing to invest in the branch of government which most people interact with.

The price for putting it all right, will undoubtedly have to be paid. Like Mrs May’s speech, it could all end in tears.

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