The first 100 days – commitments, progress and tensions

Can any modern UK government live up to Franklin D Roosevelt’s first 100 days in 1933 where the legislation was passed to create the New Deal (and where apparently the concept of the first 100 days was born)?

It’s highly unlikely, but nevertheless politicos and the media like to judge how a new government measures up. Have they been implementing manifesto commitments, what has been dropped or amended, what’s new? What is the impact and what does it tell us about what the political weather may hold for the next 1725 days?

I would guess there is a degree of consensus in local government about one key area – devolution, at least that the government is acting on the commitments to devolution it made in the Conservative manifesto. The devolution bill and the continued championing of devolution by the Treasury have kept up the pre-election momentum. Groups of authorities are pressing to come up with deals following the Chancellor’s announcement in the budget that major deals should be agreed in time for the spending review.

Of course progress won’t always be easy. Locally there are bound to be tensions – sometimes between combined authorities with major cities in each that can be competitive as well as cooperative, or within a proposed authority where the cultural, political and physical links between areas within a combined authorities are not always completely harmonious. Not every area will be able to reach a deal, there will be continued arguments over the imposition of elected mayors in places that don’t want one, and some city and county areas will find it hard to reach agreement. The government has made it clear that no one size fits all (except where they demand there should be a mayor) and that is positive, but it means the governance picture will become more fragmented and some areas may lose out altogether. What I think we need now from local government is a widescale acknowledgment that so far residents and communities have been left behind in all this (in many places anyway) and that this can’t be the picture over the next period if we want this to work.

The other key area is funding – and nowhere is this seen as starkly as in the government’s decision to postpone the cap on social care costs until 2020 and the proposed increase in the threshold above which people will start to contribute to residential care. The delay was asked for by local government and welcomed by many care organisations. What that shows, as does the government performing a major u-turn, is the huge pressures on social care budgets. Many commentators say that this is more likely to be an abandonment of the changes rather than just a delay. Successive governments have failed to solve the social care funding issue – it doesn’t look too hopeful for this one either. The money saved by the delay may not even end up in social care budgets – local government needs to make the case forcefully for the additional cash in the Autumn spending review.

What else does the first 100 days tell us? There are mixed messages on the environment – with the new Secretary of State determined to tackle climate change, but, so far, the announcements have largely been negative and have caused concern among environmentalists. On welfare, the messages are unambivalent. Welfare cuts will be at the core of the commitment to reduce the deficit. On housing, the main thrust is to support home ownership and to get more homes built, especially on brownfield sites. On social housing, the government seems to remain committed to its manifesto promise to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants.

The government’s position on key issues is clear enough – on deficit reduction, on which departmental budgets will be protected, on devolution – but there are inevitably contradictions and tensions apparent in their policy direction. Are they localist or not, for example? No easy answer here. The approach to devolution is localist – the Bill is an enabling one, and doesn’t dictate how devolution will pan out in each area. Yet there is the question of the mayor, and, of course, devolution only goes so far – no sign yet anyway of real fiscal devolution.

Planning is another matter. It is clear that ministers will intervene if they think a council isn’t doing enough, for example, to get new homes built – threatening to take over if planning decisions are taking too long or if the local plan hasn’t been adopted. And new planning guidance may see the Secretary of State ‘call in’ applications for fracking if the council hasn’t approved or rejected an application within the 16 week period. These policies are bound to be contentious locally in many places and it won’t necessarily be along party political lines.

The somewhat contradictory messages from the direction of planning policy reflect a wider one – the inevitable tensions between a government promoting localism or devolution whilst intent on achieving their policy objectives. This can be seen even in the devolution bill – that admirably allows for different solutions to meet local circumstances, but also requires those areas that want the deepest devolutionary powers to have a directly elected mayor.

The Department for Education doesn’t seem to have got the devolution message either – and is continuing its proposal to regionalise adoption agencies, and to develop a separate and unconnected regional structure which will enable the Secretary of State to exercise significant powers over the Academy sector and to intervene in local authority maintained schools.

Interestingly, on the issue of skills, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills does appear to have got it and is prepared to discuss with potential combined authorities influence over Skills Funding Agency resources. In contrast the DfE does not appear to be interested in giving such a role to combined authorities on the 16 to 19 education training resources, leading to the prospect that combined authorities may be able to influence post-19 provision in local FE colleges but not 16-19 provision.

The central versus local debate is far from over.

This blog is based on our member briefing on the first 100 days of this government, which gives details of the announcements and legislation that are impacting most on local government.

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