Empowering English local government to lead on sustainable and resilient development of their localities

Paul Corrigan and Paul Joyce

We have just been having a conversation about English local government and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. One of us had begun by being idealistic about it. Too idealistic. But our exchange led to this blog in which we end up wondering what local government can do pragmatically to encourage sustainable and resilient localities.

Let’s start with the realism. As a result of developments over the last forty years, as compared to much of Europe, English local government is an anomaly. To put it bluntly, English local government has a very low level of autonomy compared to local governments in Europe (and elsewhere), even though its national system of public governance is quite capable. Taxes are a relatively low proportion of local government revenue in the UK, and this is so in the context of a very low level of local government expenditure as a percentage of GDP. Surely, to have more autonomy in a locality local government needs to be able to find much of its revenue from locally set taxes. It is generally believed that if local government must rely on grants determined by central government, and especially if the grants are earmarked by central government for purposes decided by it, then there is little potential for local autonomy.

Countries such as Sweden, Finland, and Norway have reputations for much greater local government autonomy than the UK. These three are all countries which are rated as having very effective governance, high standards of living, high standards of health and education, and, on average, very happy citizens. Plus, they have enviable records in terms of public confidence in government, as compared to the situation in the UK over many years. It seems that you can have both good national outcomes and local government empowered with a lot of local autonomy.

We can see the financial situation of UK local government using OECD data for the year 2019:

Local government revenue and taxes (2019)

We should not give the impression that the only issue is one of finances. It is probably very important that English local government is embedded in a national system of public governance that is both strategic in character and operating in a whole-of-government manner. Arguably, the implication of such a governance system is that strategic coordination between levels of government is not attempted in a purely top-down way by central government. Another less obvious implication is that that there is a high level of social capital that local government can tap into so it can powerfully deliver sustainable development goals.

Now for the idealism. Local government has a long-term responsibility to its citizens to ensure that local communities survive and thrive for future generations. Consistent with this is the view that local governments (and regional governments) should be at the forefront of delivering the United Nation’s sustainable development goals. At the very least we can argue that local government has a critical role to play in their delivery.

Ideally speaking still, we can use some of the ideas of the United Nations’ Committee of Experts on Public Administration to suggest questions we might pose to local government everywhere – in every country – about their work in delivering the sustainable development goals (United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration 2022). The suggested questions are:

  • Have they aligned their visions for the development of their communities, their associated strategic plans, and their budgets and service policies with long-term sustainable development goals? 
  • Are individual local governments able to act in a way consistent with a whole-of-government approach to the delivery of their visions and strategies?
  • Are they able to track and account for their expenditures against the 17 sustainable development goals?
  • Are they able to evaluate and report to the public and other stakeholders on their performance in delivering the sustainable development goals in their locality?
  • Are they carrying out data analysis to identify the occurrence and extent of poverty and inequality as a prelude to local policy making?
  • Are they acting in their local areas to reduce poverty and inequality and to create more human development and empowerment?
  • Are they acting in partnership with citizens and other stakeholders through strategies such as community-driven development and participatory budgeting?
  • Are they able to engage the public in initiating and designing local public services?
  • Are they acting in accordance with the principles of open local governance?
  • Are they able to interact with central government and a get a cooperative response to problem solving from it?
  • Have they got the necessary skills and sufficient scale of financial resources they need to play a decisive role in sustainable and resilient development of their communities?

Finally, we arrive at the moment of pragmatism in this blog.  After the last forty years, which include the austerity years since 2010, we must recognise that English local government is placed in very challenging circumstances. We would say that they do not have the right legal framework, they do not have sufficient organisational capacity, and that they need more public support and resources to do what would be implied in the 11 questions above. They are currently exceptionally constrained in what they can do.

But the English local authorities have gained great skill in forming and developing partnerships and so they could develop stronger partnerships for sustainability. They could, for example, begin by consulting the public on community priorities. These priorities could be an input into local conferences to discuss voluntary coordination and efforts involving all the sectors (public, private, and voluntary). Finally, individual local authorities could prepare for better targeting of their highly constrained resources by auditing their expenditures against the 17 sustainable development goals.

In effect, pragmatic and idealist arguments suggested here call for the community leadership role of local government to be focused on delivering sustainable development mainly through encouraging and coordinating others at the local level.

Paul Corrigan has been a social science academic, a local government officer and a special adviser on health policy to New Labour Secretaries of State for Health and the Prime Minister Tony Blair. He now chairs Care City an innovation community interest company in the East End of London.

Paul Joyce is an Inlogov associate.  Paul has a PhD from London School of Economics and Political Science. His latest book is Strategic Management and Governance: Strategy Execution Around the World (Routledge, 6 June 2022). He is a Visiting Professor in Public Management at Leeds Beckett University.

Getting under the skin of council budgets: what does good scrutiny look like?

Cllr Ketan Sheth

It’s a testing but all-too-familiar mix: funding cuts from central government, skyrocketing demand for local services, a growing population, tough choices and communities vulnerable as they recover from the social and economic shocks of the pandemic. As we approach budget setting, our situation in Brent – a NW London borough – mirrors the position of local authorities around the country.

​Against this challenging backdrop, I believe the role of effective Scrutiny is more important than ever, and so too is learning from one another.

This year, I co-chaired Brent Council’s Budget Scrutiny Task Group. It was our job to get under the skin of budget proposals, to grasp their real-world effects, to understand any mitigations, and to make recommendations where we felt the decisions of our Cabinet, and Full Council, could be strengthened.

To bring forward a balanced budget, this year we were called to scrutinise a package of savings totalling £2.7million, alongside Council Tax increases.

A deeper approach to scrutiny

Given the stark financial picture across the country, from the outset, we wanted to make sure that scrutiny was grounded in the complex reality of the difficult decisions that the Cabinet needed to take. We were determined that the scrutiny process must add value.

As a group, we worked with officers to develop a much broader approach than simply reviewing proposed savings. Instead of solely relying on the community consultation undertaken by the Cabinet, we went into detail on the impacts and sought out testimony from people on the ground. We felt we needed to get a deeper understanding of the experience of those who use Brent’s services and the complexity of their situations.

The idea was to test underlying assumptions made in the proposals, in order to give Cabinet and Full Council information and evidence to base their decisions on. We identified a number of areas to probe:

1. Impacts of Covid-19 on income from business rates, Council Tax and rents;

2. The impacts on health inequalities work when grant funding ends;

3. Implications of Covid-19 on the adult social care budget, especially mental health;

4. Pressures within the Dedicated School Grant; and

5. How the council’s £17m Covid-19 recovery package is being spent

The task group agreed a mix of less conventional scrutiny methods to build this holistic view, including focus groups and detailed evidence sessions with people on the ground. From local head teachers to voluntary and community sector partners, teams from our well-being  services, and Brent Hubs staff (Brent Hubs are spaces in the community bringing lots of services together under one roof to improve access for residents with more complex needs).

By taking this approach, we were able to assess the wider financial and service context, identify possible future budget pressures and the likely emerging needs of our communities.

It allowed us to make a number of nuanced, practical recommendations when reporting back. Most focused not on the savings themselves, but on how the Cabinet  might work differently to overcome and address some of those pressures. Helpfully, the group also identified areas where we felt the Council could effectively lobby for more support nationally and regionally. We’ve also put in place mechanisms for pulling insights from these testimonies as well as learnings from this deeper process through to future budget scrutiny cycles. Ultimately, we are all trying to deliver a better outcome for local people, and so I’m a big believer in the power of scrutiny to support good decision-making. I think that this is best realised by being a “critical friend”. The deeper, more contextual approach we took in Brent this year achieved just that, and I look forward to seeing these efforts bear fruit when the budget is taken to Full Council later this month.

Cllr Ketan Sheth is Brent Council’s Chair of Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee and co-chaired its Budget Scrutiny Task Group

As the children return to school in September, the change in Pupil Premium funding will see many schools lose out

Cllr Ketan Sheth

Cllr Sheth on a recent visit to a school

Pupil Premium funding for our most disadvantaged children, based on the number of children eligible for free school meals (FSM) data collated every January, provides critical funding to schools for essential resources, which in turn benefits all children. Each FSM successfully registered increases the funding to schools, a substantial amount of which does not reach schools because not all parents who are eligible apply for FSM for their child.

New Government conditions have seen a change in how it is calculated. By shifting from a January date, for calculation, to the previous October date, a stretched borough, such as Brent, now, will have 900 fewer secondary school pupils eligible, amounting to a loss of £860K in their budget. 

Pupils at primary schools fare a little better in Brent; but the picture elsewhere in the country is less kind – 62,000 fewer eligible pupils in primary schools in England, according to FFT Education Datalab analysis of the Department of Education recent figures.

The need for FSM and eligibility is rising, as are casual admissions all year round, due to changes in family incomes. This change results in £90M missing from budgets when schools have already been under intense pressure with lockdown and are attempting to build-up again as we recover following Covid-19.

The result means that the Government has introduced a detrimental lag in funding, which will introduce a current year saving; but will impact on the much needed essential support for children who have had the greatest challenges of home-learning throughout the pandemic and now beyond.

We are often reminded of the mantra: “every child matters”; if we are serious about levelling-up everywhere then we must rethink this decision and how we best support our children, so no child is disadvantage. The time between September, the start of the school year, and January allows for an accurate reflection of school children in need of FSM; and therefore, schools requirement for Pupil Premium. The timing is essential to promote and ensure effective communication with parents/carers, enabling them to register for FSM.

There is some speculation amongst head teachers that the Government may overhaul or perhaps completely remove the funding – this will be catastrophic and a retrograde step for the levelling-up agenda.

Cllr Ketan Sheth is Chair of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee of Brent Council

Help council commissioning to ‘build back better’

Jason Lowther

Local government is digging deep into its financial reserves and hiking council tax bills by double inflation, but still anticipates making further service cuts in 2021–22. The Public Accounts Committee report earlier this month shows how central government support hasn’t matched Covid-related budget reductions. More positively, at the same time, councils and partners are eyeing the improvements made to commissioning and procurement during the pandemic and asking whether these could help balance the budget. Can adding value to local government’s annual procurement spend of £100bn help improve outcomes for citizens, sustain local councils, and build a better recovery?

As NESTA’s recent report, A Catalyst for Change, evidenced, councils’ collaboration with other public sector bodies, citizens and the voluntary and private sectors was at the centre of the response to COVID-19. Local authorities ‘stepped into their role as conveners, leveraged their existing relationships and partnerships, and forged new ones to dynamically address key issues. This allowed organisations to link up volunteers with vulnerable people, support businesses, deliver food parcels or find temporary accommodation for rough sleepers’.

I’ve heard from some of the council managers on INLOGOV’s teaching programmes of the amazing agility and flexibility councils have been able to develop with partners in areas such as social care and housing. Commissioning and procurement processes that in the past were seen as inflexible, slow, risk-averse, price-obsessed and lacking innovation were transformed rapidly in response to the immediate threats of the pandemic. Data was shared in more depth and quickly, enabling better targeting of services. More flexible financial and performance management arrangements opened the door to flexible service delivery.

Now, a major research programme led by Dr. Richard Simmons at Stirling University, called Optimising Outcomes, is looking at the impact of Covid on partnering and procurement. The programme is working with key sector bodies such as CIPFA and SOLACE as well as universities and research councils, to answer key questions such as:

  • How, and how effectively, are local authorities deploying their commissioning and procurement functions to address the challenges posed by Covid-19? What are the successes to be celebrated? Where are the tensions that need to be managed? Where is the system at risk of breaking down?
  • What are the opportunities for improved procurement performance? How do local authorities optimise every aspect of procurement spend?
  • Can local authorities adopt more innovative, strategic, entrepreneurial and relational approaches to strengthen local resilience and avoid a weak and incapacitated system?
  • What role can greater data-analytic capacity play in supporting a more agile and effective response?

As part of this research, council managers have been invited to take part in a survey to capture learning from the many challenges and achievements of the sector during the last year.  The survey is aimed at all UK council managers (there is a separate survey for procurement teams) and takes around 10 minutes to complete.  The closing date for responses is 21st June.

If you are a UK council manager and haven’t yet taken part, please would you complete the survey here.    

This is a great opportunity to ‘build back better’ by applying the lessons and innovations councils and partners have developed over the last 18 months. I’ll report back on the results later this year.

Source: DHSC website

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies (INLOGOV)

The £3 Billion Pound Question

Jason Lowther

The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ latest review of English council finances documents why so many chief executives and treasurers have been having sleepless nights since “whatever it takes to tackle Covid” transformed into “as little as we can get away with giving you”.

On Wilkins Micawber’s “income” side, Covid has hit councils’ commercial activities, notably around retail rents, as well as fees for facilities such as leisure centres, and revenue from local taxes.   On the expenditure side, councils are seeing persistent cost increases.  As Micawber predicted: “result misery”.

In social care alone, expenditure on the care of older people will need to increase substantially and quickly.  Adult social care has faced a combination of pressures arising from demographic change and increased costs, rising need and demand, and short-term funding settlements. 

The IFS recognises the huge uncertainties involved in predicting financial and economic issues at present, addressing this by analysing a range of scenarios.

The bottom line across all council services is a £3bn+ shortfall in 2020–21, with the IFS concluding this may well be an optimistic estimate, and a middle scenario projecting a gap of over £3bn a year by 2024-25.  Not surprisingly they conclude that “without additional funding and/or flexibility over council tax rates, it is highly likely that councils will have insufficient revenues to keep pace with rising spending needs”.

What to do about this?  Aside from yet more austerity, the IFS identifies changing the rules on council tax rises (which would increase inequalities between rich and poor areas), increasing government grants, or giving councils additional tax powers such as new local taxes.

Austerity, the sustained and widespread cuts to government budgets which characterised Britain’s public policy from 2010, has already shrunk the capacity of the local state, increasing inequality between local governments and exacerbating territorial injustice[ii].

Greater local freedom on taxation is well overdue in the UK, where a larger proportion of local government spending is financed through grants from central government, and much less use is made of local and regional taxation than in almost all other European countries[iii]

Although the body of existing academic evidence about the impact of devolving fiscal powers is inconclusive[iv], comparative research on how municipal governments function in a number of major international cities demonstrates that British cities have very low levels of fiscal autonomy[v] and lower productivity than these cities.  There are also positive effects on economic outcomes when powers are held at the appropriate level and when local authorities are incentivised to create pro-growth planning regimes[vi] 

It’s also worth noticing again that much local government funding is still distributed through competitions which place considerable pressures upon local authorities and partners[vii], and result in wasted effort and ineffective use of resources.  And, whilst councils and other public bodies can share resources and pool funds to deliver joint outcomes more effectively and efficiently, there are still legal, cultural, governance and other barriers to this collaboration. 

In the short term, government should cull competitive funding and address the barriers to resource sharing.  They must plug the £3bn+ funding gaps over this and the next few years.  And in the medium term much more local freedom on taxation and autonomy are needed to give local government a sustainable future.

Jason Lowther, Director – Institute for Local Government Studies


[i] Ogden, K. et al, 2020, COVID-19 and English council funding: what is the medium-term outlook?, Institute for Fiscal Studies

[ii] Gray, M. and Barford, A., 2018. The depths of the cuts: the uneven geography of local government austerity. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society11(3), pp.541-563.

[iii] Loughlin, J. and Martin, S., 2003. Options for Reforming Local Government Funding to Increase Local Streams of Funding: International Comparisons. Lyons Inquiry into Local Government Funding.

[iv] London Finance Commission, 2013. Raising the capital: The report of the London Finance Commission. London, the Commission.

[v] Slack, E., 2016. International Comparison of Global City Financing: A Report to the London Finance Commission. Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance Munk School of Global Affairs. University of Toronto.

[vi] Cheshire, P.C. and Hilber, C.A., 2008. Office space supply restrictions in Britain: the political economy of market revenge. The Economic Journal118(529), pp.F185-F221.

[vii] Loader, K., 2002. What price competition? The management of competitive funding in UK local government. International Journal of Public Sector Management.

Social care reform – comprehensive is good, but comprehensible vital

Chris Game

Cllr Ketan Sheth’s recent blog on ‘Local Government and the NHS Integrated Care System’ was, as he explained, timely for him personally – as an elected London borough councillor about to take on a novel scrutiny role in a new ICS.

For us Midlands readers it was timely too, for reasons most easily conveyed by the King’s Fund’s recent highly colourful Map 1 of ICSs so far established – highly colourful, that is, for some parts of England, including Cllr Sheth’s London, but bleak grey for others, like the whole of the Midlands, with merely our at least slightly more localised Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs).

This blog is not directly about either STPs or ICSs, which have only a late walk-on role. It is, though, about the future of social care and local government’s involvement in, or marginalisation from, that future, and it opens with one of Boris Johnson’s first Prime Ministerial broken pledges, in his very first speech as PM, to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared”.

The ‘clear prepared plan’ bit was obvious fiction, and confirmed as such in the Conservatives’ December election manifesto.  60 pages, nearly 1,000 days working on a promised but still undelivered Green Paper, and no sniff of a plan.  One un-costed pre-condition (p.23) – that nobody should have to sell their home to pay for care – and a slightly desperate hope to build cross-party consensus on reform.

But last week, just eight months on, jostling with daily lockdown bulletins and courtesy mainly of The Guardian newspaper, saw a sudden small flurry of tantalising leaks. First came Ministers’ “radical plans for everyone over 40 to contribute towards the cost of social care in later life” – paying more in tax or national insurance, or insuring themselves against “hefty care bills when they are older”.

Broadly resembling the German and Japanese funding systems, it is variously labelled a ‘comprehensive’ and ‘compulsory’ insurance model, both of which, to be effective, it surely has to be.

But an even bigger question, I suggest in the blog’s title, is surely whether it can become a comprehensible and comprehended model, and pretty quickly – because the evidence is that our collective understanding of even the existing system is worryingly low.

With coincidental but near-perfect timing, the New Statesman magazine recently commissioned a poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies asking a sample of 2,000 GB adults about their awareness of how social care is currently funded and organised. Its findings, for a topic dominating news headlines for several months now, were concerning.

Fewer than one in eight felt they were “significantly aware”, under half even “moderately aware”, and nearly a quarter “not aware at all”. They were then asked which of (1) the NHS, (2) private operators, and (3) my local council, they thought were currently providing community care in their locality.  Being a GB-wide sample, there are no precisely right or wrong answers, and ‘providing’ makes it almost a trick question – which personally I’d have opposed phrasing in this way. Still, there are better and worse guesses.

“My local council”, chosen by 55%, is a decent pick – if, by providing, you mean paying for.  But not, for decades now, if you mean actual care home beds.  As Covid has tragically demonstrated, funding is nowadays effectively separated from extremely fragmented provision, with only some 3% of beds directly provided by councils and at least 80% in over 11,000 homes by for-profit private companies, local organisations and charities.

As for payment – roughly £600 per week here in the West Midlands – just over one-third of residents have their fees met by their local authority; one in eight pay top-up fees, but the biggest fraction must find the full fees themselves.  Which, given our apparently limited understanding of the present-day system, must frequently come as a serious shock.

Exactly half the poll respondents ticked the “private operators” option. However, virtually as many (48%) nominated the NHS, which, note the authors, is nowadays “a very small player” indeed in providing social care.  It’s not totally wrong, but close – and that, in the proverbial nutshell, is Ministers’ social care problem.

The public generally have low understanding of how even the present care home system works, of how literally dis-integrated it has become, with home care provision twice as fragmented and considerably more expensive. But they love, clap for, and think they know ‘their’ NHS.

It was even more starkly highlighted in the crunch question: “Which of three options for the future of social care comes closest to your own view?”  Exactly half the respondents selected the ‘NHS model’ that many had just demonstrated they seriously misperceived: “Social care should be free at the point of use, regardless of whether individuals contributed taxation into the system during their working lives”.

Just over one-third preferred the ‘pension’ or ‘compulsory insurance’ model referenced in the Guardian story – or, rather, first story.  For, the following day, it reported Government plans to in effect merge health and social care services, taking the latter away from local councils altogether and handing them and their £22.5 billion annual funding over to the NHS.

The Department of Health and Social Care issued a routine denial, but the PM’s long awaited ‘plan’ appears, currently, to be that care services would be commissioned by, and funded through, the new NHS regional Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) gradually unrolling across England – although not, as yet, the Midlands, where we’re still in the Sustainability and Transformation Partnership phase.

I conclude with what seems a bit of a personal dilemma. Having worked for over half my life for an ‘Institute of Local Government Studies’, I instinctively deprecate both the fact and implications of elected and accountable local authorities losing a major function for so long integral to their existence.

On the other hand, if that’s what most people reckon they want, and the Government fundamentally misunderstands, distrusts, and already wants to diminish and/or abolish local councils ….   The question is: would the public be prepared to pay the cost of NHS-style “social care, free at the point of use”, largely unaddressed in the New Statesman questionnaire?  But that’s for another blog.

 

Photo

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.