Austerity might be over – but councils cannot expect windfall from Whitehall

Councils like Ipswich and Suffolk struggle to win battles with national polititicans.

Councils like Ipswich and Suffolk struggle to win battles with national polititicans. - Credit: Archant

When Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond stood up to deliver his Budget speech last week, much was made of his heralding the “end of austerity.”

Politicians at Westminster don't like giving up power - or money - to local authorities. Picture: PA

Politicians at Westminster don't like giving up power - or money - to local authorities. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

While he did ease the purse strings for health and defence, there was precious little to support the country’s local councils or several other departments that are facing really tough choices over the next few months.

Suffolk County Council is still desperately trying to find ways of cutting its overspend. It’s showing no real signs of doing that – so money is coming out of reserves.

As it happens Suffolk (and Essex for that matter) is a county that has been pretty well run over the years, has built up some reserves but is now forced to dip into them.

It can do that for a few more years. It isn’t like Northamptonshire which effectively went bust this year or East Sussex which has been forced to cut just about all its services to avoid getting into a Northamptonshire-like situation next May.

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But the fact is that Suffolk cannot continue to dip into its reserves for ever. They are a finite resource and county officials know they need to start reining in their spending to avoid getting into serious trouble.

That means we can expect more serious cuts in next year’s budget and in future years.

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Because like every national government I’ve ever seen, whether run by Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, or Theresa May there has been a pathological terror in Whitehall and Westminster of giving local authorities the power and the responsibility to do what their local voters actually want them to do.

Everyone knows there is a real crisis developing in social care so the government gives local councils money to spend on . . . social care.

To be fair, any council worth its salt getting a windfall from the government at the moment almost certainly would put the bulk of it into the social care budget – that’s where the real crisis is looming.

But do councils really need to be told that? Shouldn’t the democratically-elected politicians have the right to decide where the money is most needed in their areas?

No. That goes against the central government and civil service mantra. Whitehall and Westminster have to control everything. Local councillors cannot be trusted.

After all, local councillors are all either local busybodies (most of them), wannabe MPs (a few of the younger brighter ones) or failed MPs who go back home to become directly-elected mayors.

That’s not true, of course, but it’s certainly the impression you get from central government except when MPs are doing grip-and-grin photographs with their local council leaders (as long as they’re from the same political party).

And councils continue to be the whipping-boy of central government. Politicians at Westminster starve them of funds and refuse to allow them to raise extra money (without an expensive and unpopular referendum).

Then when popular local services have to be axed because of lack of funding, ministers and MPs wash their hands of the problem with a shrug of the shoulders and a “not me, guv” attitude.

That’s not just the current government. Labour were just as bad – albeit in a slightly different way.

Today’s Tory government simply doesn’t allow county councils to have enough money and then shrugs its shoulders.

In 2003 Labour deprived councils of some of the money they needed and told them to find it elsewhere. Then when counties like Labour-led Suffolk put up council tax by 18% and Conservative-led Norfolk put up council tax by 17%, the government just turned away and abdicated its responsibility.

So today we are in a situation where things are becoming slightly easier on the fiscal front and government departments are getting a little bit more money.

But I’m sure those working and trying to run local councils will be aware that the won’t get any meaningful help. Yes they’ll be given an odd million here or there to pay for a few more care packages or fill a few more potholes.

However serious money to make a real difference to their communities? Don’t be silly. Councils are far too inferior to Whitehall to be trusted with that kind of money!

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