Yesterday’s NLGN Annual Conference came with a painful sting in the tail.
The day was dominated by talk of creativity and collaboration – bursting with ideas about how technology, new approaches to the workforce, co-operation between public sector agencies and commercialisation are transforming service delivery. Anyone who knows what is really going on in local government right now (as opposed to the hackneyed tabloid caricature) will know that this is nothing unusual.
The final debate of the day focused on money. The message from the extremely experienced and esteemed panel was uniform – the current financial situation for local government is unsustainable. After losing a third of its funding since 2010 at a time of inexorably rising demand, key local services are reaching the point at which they can no longer be delivered at acceptable levels of quality and coverage.
The conference coincided with the announcement of the financial settlement for local government which offered no more money even in the area of social care which numerous voices have made clear is deteriorating fast.
We can only hope that the Chancellor pulls something out of the bag in his Budget on 8th March but quite frankly few in local government would now be surprised if he didn’t. This Government seems content to let councils and the crucial services they provide slip down the agenda. The signals have been unmistakable: an Autumn Statement that had more to say about the renovation of a single stately home than the social care crisis, a Brexit White Paper that barely mentioned local government or indeed public services, a Green Paper on Industrial Strategy that relegated councils to a bit part and a half-hearted approach to devolution that has left many speculating out loud that the process is now largely dead.
Politically this is astoundingly short-sighted. The drum-beat of popular dissatisfaction around deteriorating social care and its impact on the NHS is growing louder every day. There are already signs that children’s care is beginning to suffer. And it surely can’t be long before services such as waste collection, libraries, green spaces and transport (traditionally major hot-button issues locally) come under even greater pressure. If the Government thinks it can escape a popular backlash because the Opposition is currently so weak it should wake up rapidly. Voters across the world are in febrile mood increasingly willing to use the ballot box as a protest against establishment complacency and to take punts on previously untried political parties.
But beyond that there are real ethical risks here. A society that fails to look after its elderly, disabled and young is a society losing its moral bearings. Are we really willing to say to ourselves that we are willing to sacrifice the well-being of our most vulnerable on the altar of … well, on the altar of what exactly?
Austerity? The Government has told us that is over.
The belief that “more money is not the only answer” as Sajid Javid has said? No-one thinks it is but it is definitely part of the answer.
Or complacency and lack of intellectual bandwidth in the face of the Brexit conundrum? That would be a shocking admission for a Prime Minister who has said she wants a country in which no-one is left behind.
The bottom line is this: the Government must find more money for local services. Failing to do so will put its own political future and the ethical fabric of the country at serious risk.