What does the Coalition programme mean for local government? Some of the most specific of the 28 points in the ‘communities and local government’ section focus on planning where the thrust is double devolution. Councils see the return of local planning powers, a measure which will presumably be used to block new housing developments where there is local opposition. But there will also be steps to give neighbourhoods an enhanced role in very local place shaping.
Beyond this there are three sets of issues. The first is a commitment to ‘a radical devolution of power’. Beyond planning, the main specific measures are a general power of competence, cutting local government inspection, scrapping ring fenced grants and the abolition of the Comprehensive Area Assessment. However, as local government has a minimal place in the NHS, crime, schools and ‘social action’ sections, and as there is no mention of Local Strategic Partnerships or any other co-ordinating body, it doesn’t appear this devolution of power will include a wider strategic function across local public services.
Indeed the opening up of schools to new providers, the strengthening of the right of local communities ‘to save local facilities and services threatened with closure’, the direct election of local police chiefs, the freeze on council tax for one (and possibly two) years and the enhancement of rights for residents to veto ‘excessive’ council tax increases, could all be seen as measures that will make it harder for councils to get their way. In this sense the agreement confirms the impression of all the party manifestos which is the absence of a coherent framework for local governance.
It is difficult to know what will be the outcome of the second theme; the reform of local governance. Councillors will no doubt be pleased to see the back of the Standards Board, have some fun with the right to vote on remuneration packages for chief officers but possibly be less enthusiastic about publishing every item of spending over £500. But how many will vote to return to the committee system, and will the 12 big cities take up the opportunity to have mayors, or fight for a ‘no’ in the ‘confirmatory’ referendum?
The third theme isn’t in the local government or public services sections but in paragraph three of the introduction by the two leaders: ‘We are…agreed that the most urgent task facing this coalition is to tackle our record debts’ and in the pledge to ‘significantly accelerate the reduction of the structural deficit….with the main burden…borne by reduced spending’. It is this issue which is certain to be the most important for councils.
In all the talk of the £6 billion savings package, which George Osborne will unveil next week, it is easy to forget this is just the tip of the iceberg. We will have to wait for the budget and the autumn spending review to see the full scale of mainstream budget reductions. But the likely pressure on local government budgets looks even greater in the context of other Coalition spending pledges, including major areas like the NHS, schools and overseas aid which are to be safeguarded from any reduction. With councils apparently having less scope to raise money locally and with communities having more power to slow down or block unpopular cuts, to say councils are between a rock and a hard place is an understatement.
Unless I have missed something, there is little to suggest the Coalition is interested in supporting - let alone incentivising - initiatives like Total Place (perhaps this is just too humdrum for these heady days). But local collaboration and budget pooling is surely vital to minimise the impact of the coming cuts on the most important aspects of local life and the most vulnerable local people. Maybe, in fact, the most important message of the Coalition programme for local public service leaders is actually page seven where we see the photogenic Dave and Nick sitting together committed to overcoming old rivalries for the good of the nation.