Local councils around the UK are required by law to maintain a balanced budget, spending no more than they can afford. If only central government had the same requirement! But recently, council after council has either had to dip into their emergency savings, sell off assets, slash public services or simply break the law and run a deficit in order pay the spiralling costs of providing essential care to vulnerable children and adults, amongst other things. Whilst many councils are making deep and drastic cuts to public services and local facilities, others are on the brink of bankruptcy. Nottinghamshire County Council found itself over the edge earlier this year and now central government is proposing to ‘reorganise’ the county and district councils into unitary councils.
According to data recently published by the government, local councils in England have overspent on children’s services by over £800m. This has followed a significant increase in the number of children around England being taken into care by local authorities or subject to a child protection plan. But the government’s solution to this crisis falls far short of addressing the real problem. Councils up and down the land are laden with responsibilities in areas such as education, public safety, highways, planning and social care, but are having their resources cut by distant Westminster bureaucrats and politicians.
Central government’s stranglehold on the levers of power, and its unwillingness to give them up, means that local councils are unable to find the necessary powers, opportunities and resources they urgently need in order to deliver important local and public services. Sometimes only through breaking the law and overspending on key budgets are they genuinely prioritising child protection over other concerns.
It’s not just big increases in demand for children’s services that is putting pressure on councils. Back in February Age UK reported that councils’ budget squeeze is also impacted by substantial rises in demand for adult social care, with overspending predicted to reach £450m for the 2017-18 financial year.
As the chair of the County Councils Network, Cllr Paul Carter has commented: “With county authorities spending on average two-thirds of their budgets on adult social care and children’s social care, they are undoubtedly under the most intense pressure, as evidenced by Northamptonshire and East Sussex recently. Counties have delivered the largest efficiencies in the public sector, but there is a limit as what can be delivered with current resource. To prevent catastrophic consequences, it is essential that government responds to our calls for additional resource in advance of the social care green paper, the spending review, and fair funding review.”
If reorganisation is a solution, then Westminster is guilty of pointing out the speck in the eye of local government, and missing the plank in its own eye. It’s not that reorganising government structure is the wrong answer, but that we need a root and branch reorganisation of the entire government structure of the United Kingdom. We need a revolution of local empowerment, to shift power away from the hands of Westminster and into our counties, our boroughs, our towns and villages. If councils had greater say in how they raise resources and finance their own activities, then the result would be better, more efficient, and more transparent budgeting, putting the money where its really needed.
Leader of the Federalist Party