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The end of local government?

May 8, 2020 7:33 PM

Many county and district councils will be effectively bankrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. That means central government will have to choose how much local government it wishes to maintain and pay for. It may choose to move services outside of the democratic sector, with the council tax being expanded to pay for them, and to run them without what it sees as the unnecessary burden of council bureaucracy.

But that's for the future. Here's an update on the current situation from Howard Sykes, Leader of the Local Government Association Liberal Democrat Group:

"When historians judge the Government's response to the coronavirus crisis they will focus on the human cost. The soaring death rate - with all the devastation, grief and loss that brings - will be examined.

The Government guidance, delays to lockdown and the farcical distribution of PPE will be in the spotlight, as will the Government's abysmal response to the crisis in our care homes.

It is doubtful that local government finance will take centre stage in the history books but the latest missives and back tracking on early "commitments" from Community Secretary Robert Jenrick are likely to have a devastating impact on the UK's people and economy for decades.

Central Government's mixed messages on local government funding have not just been chaotic, they have been catastrophic. Go back just a few weeks and the lines were clear. 'Whatever it takes' - we were told, time and time again.

Privately, Ministers reassured local government leaders: if you are close to financial collapse, come to us.

Local government was handed the responsibility to look after its communities. We know what we are doing; we have a record of delivering for them on daily basis; it is what we do!

Now, in a killer blow, Mr Jenrick has issued his caveat. The Government will only pay for the 'specific tasks' it has handed down. It was like a knife being plunged into our backs.

For most councils lost income is a much bigger number than increased costs due to COVID-19. Also, that lost income runs on for years. For example, when town centres open; who is going to bring back parking charges on day one?

The Minister's latest comment this week means no support for lost income. No funding for further pressures on services - from social care, to domestic abuse, to protecting those with lost income. No cash to support the local economy, rebuild town centres, create growth, jobs and skills. The list of costs - after a decade of cuts - is endless.

On one hand I welcome the additional cash that the Government has awarded the sector, the most recent being focused on districts, but it wasn't enough, and it was paid for by the robbing of urban areas with high levels of deprivation.

Some of those problems have been simmering for a while: the crisis in adult social care, the underfunding of children services, the endless additional burdens pushed down from Government without proper funding.

The Prime Minister has reassured the nation and us: austerity is over. But for local government, there is no money, and we will be left with the mess to clear up, yet again. But this time we might not be able to, as there might not be many of us left in a decent state to do anything."