A predictable phenomenon emerges ahead of every round of local elections: councils suddenly become important again. Politicians start crowing about fixing potholes, bin collections, recycling and their opponents’ council tax rates. Ministers turn up for photo opportunities, door-knocking in sympathetic wards. Councillors are congratulated for “delivering for the local community” on social media.
Such electioneering is hardly surprising. Council business is not sexy and receives vanishingly little attention, particularly with the decline of local newspapers. But this can be difficult to stomach for those trying to run local government services on an ever-shrinking budget. For all the rhetoric and campaign enthusiasm this week, successive Conservative governments have neglected councils to the point of bankruptcy. Including Tory ones.
Since austerity kicked in under the coalition more than a decade ago, central government funding to councils has been cut by 38 per cent (from 2009/10 to 2018/19). While austerity, since Theresa May’s premiership, has been declared “over”, the cuts still continue: 94 per cent of county and unitary authority chief finance officers expect to cut service budgets in 2021-22, according to the National Audit Office.
Boris Johnson’s government cannot claim to have a different attitude towards councils than its predecessors.
In his first speech as Prime Minister, he announced he had a “clear plan” for funding social care – the biggest pressure on council budgets. This plan is yet to materialise, despite the pandemic exposing how crucial social care is for public health and the resilience of the NHS.
Councils are so far from this government’s mind that it outsourced the contact tracing system to centralised call centres to little effect, while local authorities proved themselves far more successful in handling the task (with a 97 per cent success rate).
The promised emergency “whatever it takes” coronavirus funding has proved insufficient, leaving councils facing black holes in their budgets and with more cuts to impose. In the spending review last November, local authorities were given the power to raise council tax by up to 5 per cent – a sign of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s austere plan for funding local services.
Since the pandemic hit, Croydon Council has effectively gone bankrupt, and four other councils in England – in Eastbourne, Bexley, Luton and Peterborough – have had to be bailed out by central government, which has allowed them to borrow money for day-to-day spending.
The Public Accounts Committee predicted in January that more councils would be “unable to balance their books” and faced bankruptcy. Nine in ten major local authorities do not have enough cash to cover their spending plans this year, according to BBC analysis in January.
Much will be read into the results of the 143 English council contests regarding Westminster political fortunes. But whatever happens won’t help this government escape the reality it refuses to face: you cannot “level up” while neglecting local services. Voters can’t bask in a prosperous new dawn if their bins are overflowing and the roads are damaging their tyres – all while paying 5 per cent more council tax for the privilege.
Even if it hasn’t reached ministers yet, this realisation is rippling among local Tories. According to exclusive polling by the New Statesman’s Spotlight policy supplement, the majority of Conservative councillors (59 per cent) said their areas had not benefited from the government’s “level up” strategy.
For a Conservative government promising to rebalance the economy, our crumbling councils are an inconvenient truth that can only be ignored for so long.