Much will be written about this coming General Election, with Theresa May keen to make it as much about Brexit as possible. Whatever the outcome, she won’t get it all her own way; most people vote in General Elections on issues much closer to home, on prospects for them, their family and community.
It is perhaps a paradox that many local elections become a verdict on national government, whilst many of the factors that can determine peoples votes in a General Election are in fact controlled by councils. Local services and their future could, indeed should, be a major factor in this election.
Council and mayoral elections in May should not just be a warm-up act for the main attraction in June. Those who run town halls, city halls and devolved authorities still wield much more power than individual MPs, despite the enormous cuts and additional pressure they face.
Since the Conservatives first took power in 2010, alongside the Liberal Democrats (who should hang their heads in shame for their betrayal of local government), councils have faced cuts of between 30-40% in their funding, as the Revenue Support Grant has been steadily reduced. For my own council this will mean around a hundred million pounds a year less in 2020 that we had in 2010. Meanwhile the range of costs and responsibilities we have has been steadily added to by central Government, for example free bus travel for older people which costs us £10 million a year.
Schools funding is also being cut, with the Government hoping that blame will fall on councils, through whom the money is passported, rather than Whitehall. Housing for many councils is another challenge, but again any extra cash is funneled through developers not councils who can target need, not maximize profit.
Planning decisions, whilst nominally left in the hands of quasi-judicial planning committees, are now effectively in the hands of central Government through planning inspectors and the National Planning Policy Framework. Decisions are made in favour of the developers, but councils get the blame when new housing overtakes green fields.
Meanwhile the costs of social care are increasing rapidly, with an ageing population living longer with acute health needs. The Conservatives will talk of the billions more they have put into care, but in truth this is money generated by giving councils no option but to increase council tax bills by up to 5% a year. Here in Brighton and Hove, with a younger than average population, our social care bill far outstrips what we raise through council tax. Once again, the blame falls on town halls not Whitehall, as taxes go up but services shrink.
I fear that another five years of Government will be bleak for local Government. Increasingly the ability of local people to influence decisions will reduce further, away from the supposed ideal of “localism” championed by David Cameron (remember him). If Brexit does immense damage to the national economy, the impacts will be felt locally, and costs will be passed down. We could see a drift to the American model, where small councils meet infrequently to hand out private sector contracts where accountability is far removed from the resident.
The people responsible for making sure the bins are emptied and streets cleaned, for making sure restaurants don’t poison you and that buildings are safe, for running the mortuary and the registry office, should not be forgotten in this election. If your local council services are not on your mind when you vote in May and again in June, then they should be.