In theory, a Conservative government with a very strong mandate should prove a tasty prospect for the local government sector. The party’s manifesto commits the government to a devolution white paper, major new funding for infrastructure, money for towns and community businesses, an extra £1bn for social care every year plus a new drive to finally sort out that particularly knotty policy area. And all of this in the context of a general effort to break with the austerity of the past.
But there’s always a ‘but’, and in this case it’s a big one. There are three issues which threaten to dominate this government’s agenda. They risk weakening or even derailing the good intentions.
The first is, of course, Brexit. ‘Get Brexit Done’ will soon turn out to be the most misleading campaign slogan of modern times. The negotiations to determine the future relationship between the EU and the UK will be hugely complex and controversial. Throw in negotiations with other trading partners such as the US and the chances that domestic issues get chucked onto the backburner once again must be high.
Secondly, the SNP’s victory plus the complexities of Northern Ireland post-Brexit could prove a real headache for this government. If Johnson remains committed to holding the union together by resisting calls for referendums in Scotland and the Province then the issue may become the defining feature of his time in office. It could mean, once again, that other matters get marginalised.
And thirdly there is the environment. The Conservative manifesto commits to making the UK net zero by 2050. That will prove hard for a party generally allergic to regulation and state intervention. But a combination of increasing extreme weather events in the UK over the next five years and growing agitation for faster action could leave issues like devolution and social care struggling for attention.
However, the biggest gap in the new government’s agenda is the lack of any coherent long-term vision for local government or public services as a whole.
Like every other Westminster party, the Conservatives have run out of serious ideas for how rising demand can be tackled or how appalling health and other inequalities could be addressed. Nothing senior Conservative figures say suggest they have the faintest clue about the radical shift to community-led services reshaping the most innovative parts of the public sector. Nothing in the manifesto indicates that their commitment to prevention goes beyond shallow and limited initiatives.
It is here that local government will face its biggest challenge. Another five years plus of ill-informed and directionless public sector policy from central government will leave our most important services facing a deeply dangerous crisis even with some extra money pumped in.
There is a very big job of persuasion to do to get this newly anointed government focused on the real issues at stake, and the solutions hiding in plain sight. It is a job that must start today.