Cut over­size councils be­fore putting up taxes

So­cial care will bank­rupt lo­cal author­i­ties. The Gov­ern­ment must take the lead with rad­i­cal re­form

The Sunday Telegraph - - Letters to the editor - SI­MON HEFFER

We are be­ing told to pre­pare for sub­stan­tial in­creases in our coun­cil tax, be­cause pub­lic ser­vices have be­come so ex­pen­sive. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey of 113 councils pub­lished last Thurs­day, 95 per cent plan to in­crease coun­cil tax in April. It seems to have es­caped the at­ten­tion of lo­cal author­i­ties (and the Gov­ern­ment, from whom a lit­tle lead­er­ship might be valu­able) that, like in­di­vid­u­als who face a squeeze, councils could start by try­ing to cut costs.

Most rad­i­cal of all – but why not? – the Gov­ern­ment could ac­cept that there is too much lo­cal gov­ern­ment, and re­solve to re­duce it. There used to be a de­bate about re­plac­ing the var­i­ous tiers – district and county councils – with uni­tary author­i­ties. It is bet­ter to re-open that de­bate, rather than milk­ing the tax­payer to pay for the in­ef­fi­cien­cies and du­pli­ca­tions of the ex­ist­ing sys­tem.

When asked why their bud­gets were un­der pres­sure, 32 per cent of councils cited chil­dren’s ser­vices, 28 per cent adult so­cial care and 19 per cent home­less­ness. On Fe­bru­ary 2, Tory-run Northamp­ton­shire county coun­cil an­nounced it was close to ef­fec­tive bank­ruptcy and un­able to meet its fi­nan­cial obli­ga­tions this year. It blamed so­cial care costs. The largest in­crease in over-65s in Eng­land has in­deed been in Northamp­ton­shire, and the coun­cil claims it is tak­ing record num­bers of chil­dren into care. Lan­cashire says it fears bank­ruptcy by 2020. The Gov­ern­ment has an­nounced £150 mil­lion ex­tra for so­cial care in 2018-19, but that is a stick­ing plas­ter, and no sub­sti­tute for whole­sale re­form.

Coun­cil tax raises just 15 per cent of lo­cal au­thor­ity rev­enue. Since the cuts of 2010-11 (which were needed to re­store san­ity to a sys­tem that Labour had used as a job cre­ation scheme for its clien­tele), the lo­cal au­thor­ity grant has fallen by £16 bil­lion. There­fore, 93 per cent of councils plan to raise other charges – park­ing, buri­als, cre­ma­tions and so on – and are also look­ing at “com­mer­cial­is­ing” some ser­vices or en­gag­ing in com­mer­cial prop­erty de­vel­op­ments.

De­spite howls of jus­ti­fied com­plaints, the Gov­ern­ment has merely tin­kered with, but re­fused to re­form, Ge­orge Os­borne’s dis­as­trously flawed busi­ness rate sys­tem, which has had a pro­found ef­fect on rev­enue-rais­ing. With a child be­ing re­ferred to coun­cil chil­dren’s ser­vices ev­ery 49 se­conds of ev­ery day, and a steep rise in in­ves­ti­ga­tions, a Gov­ern­ment ob­sessed with grand­stand­ing about his­toric child abuse man­i­festly lacks a strat­egy to deal with the present day.

But it is so­cial care that will break lo­cal gov­ern­ment. Seven years have now passed since the Dil­not re­port rec­om­mended an in­sur­ance sys­tem to cover its costs, and nei­ther the Cameron nor the May gov­ern­ments have both­ered to take such a rad­i­cal step to tackle a prob­lem that is set to be­come in­fin­itely worse.

There is huge scope to cut costs else­where: 128 coun­cil em­ploy­ees in Lon­don earn more than the prime min­is­ter, and ex­trav­a­gantly well­paid of­fi­cials ex­ist all over Eng­land. Fun­da­men­tally, the sys­tem is too big, and it causes more prob­lems than it solves. For ex­am­ple, district councils con­trol plan­ning – and do it no­to­ri­ously badly and some­times cor­ruptly – but in dump­ing huge new hous­ing de­vel­op­ments in ru­ral ar­eas, do so without prop­erly con­sid­er­ing road trans­port links, the prov­ince of county councils or even of White­hall.

The avoid­ance of such farces is but one rea­son to es­tab­lish uni­tary author­i­ties at county level: the oth­ers are smaller pay­rolls and the chance to sell off as­sets. Also, the tal­ent pool of lo­cal coun­cil­lors is no­tably shal­low. Many are un­equal to the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties they must dis­charge and some are too sus­cep­ti­ble to do­ing favours, rather than dis­charg­ing pol­icy ob­jec­tively, in ac­cor­dance with pro­ce­dure. At county level those who run port­fo­lios are now called “cab­i­net mem­bers” and paid salaries. They should take on ex­tra di­men­sions of re­spon­si­bil­ity that would come with the elim­i­na­tion of district councils, and the greater ele­ment of strate­gic plan­ning.

The bu­reau­cratic mind­set is es­pe­cially re­sis­tant to low­er­ing costs in the eas­i­est way, by cut­ting pay­roll. In re­cent years al­most any­thing else has been cut – reg­u­lar refuse col­lec­tions, li­braries, and above all po­lice pa­trols, which are now non-ex­is­tent in large swaths of Eng­land – in or­der to spare the jobs of of­fice work­ers. So the Gov­ern­ment must take the lead, re­mov­ing huge strate­gic ques­tions such as so­cial care from coun­cil con­trol al­to­gether, and es­tab­lish­ing a struc­ture of lo­cal gov­ern­ment that is ef­fi­cient and stream­lined. There are too many jobs for the boys, and girls, and it is a chal­lenge cry­ing out for a proper Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment to meet it.

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