SOME SIX YEARS on after the expenses scandal, duck-moats, imprisonments and all, fired the ire of the nation, we still haven’t collectively forgiven or forgotten. In fact the emotional charge has deepened through time.

It makes one wonder whether the pledges to give England some sort of devolved settlement, in a more federal United Kingdom, would merely transfer this outwardly directed rage from Westminster to the panjandrums of the combined authorities and city regions.

This overriding anti-politics mood certainly takes no prisoners. For evidence, look at the derisory turnout and, Bristol excepted, wholesale rejection of city mayors in the 2012 local elections. Whatever angers the 56 million people living in England, the salve certainly won’t be in the form of another tier of governance.

And local government is certainly not without, a propos Philip Larkin, its own cast of crooks as far as the Great British public is concerned. In fact, those guardians of the seven Nolan principles of public probity, the Committee on Standards In Public Life, argued in their recent annual report that the spotlight has now switched from the Palace of Westminster to councils and constabularies.

Indeed, the BBC Panorama expose of goings on in the east London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the explosive ramifications of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal, the slow-motion slew of reluctant resignations are, one fears, the start of a trend that will be replayed endlessly in localities over the next three years.

Of course, given the demise of local newspapers and dedicated newshounds, there is a strong chance that some suspect standards and ethics will escape notice. But the outliers, examples of astonishing bad behaviour, town hall trousering and the like will be picked up on by the nationals. And the current inability to recall, or even suspend, the most recalcitrant of badly behaving councillors under the current localised standards arrangements will simply not wash for an incredulous public.

Even so, there are some who might argue so `what?’.  The relationship between the press and local authorities has often been characterised as that between a dog and a lamppost. Why should this matter?

Shifting the view from the local to the national, whoever wins the next general election will be pursuing a similar trajectory of deficit reduction cuts, and ensuring the NHS, schools and pensions remain ring-fenced, to the detriment of public service budgets.

Those archangels of public finance doom, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, have already probed the underlying intentions of the three main political parties. Both the Conservative and Labour parties have pledged to return a Budget surplus by 2018/19.  However, the Conservatives would adopt a rigid policy focused at a reduction of borrowing requirements, which would necessitate lopping £37 billion from Whitehall-controlled spending. While Labour would advocate a looser fiscal regime that could reduce these central government cash cuts to a mere £9.3 billion in comparison.

In a speech given to the august Institute for Government, Sir Bob Kerslake, the outgoing permanent secretary for the Department for Communities and Local Government, announced the next full spending review period would prove even harder than the first five years of austerity measures. The former Sheffield City Council chief executive, who leaves Whitehall in February, said the continuance of austerity to the end of the decade would be harder for three main reasons.

  • The easier savings have been made,
  • The next spending review will be against a backdrop of a booming economy and greater competition for talented staff,
  • The sense of urgency that underpinned the 2010 Spending Review would have been lost.

This will be a hard enough task to explain to those in the public sector looking for some sort of respite. But explaining this to the Great British public will be even harder. Providers and guardians of local services will need the communications skills and savvy to explain, patiently, to an audience who don’t care to know the ins and outs, just how and why provision of vital community and care services is being shaped by these forces. 

Local government’s job is to make Whitehall’s attempt to localise blame and nationalise credit that much harder. Cleaning out its own stables is a necessary preliminary to help local government thrive during its next five year stretch.

Jonathan Werran
Features editor
Municipal Journal