LGiU Fortnightly 16th February: Finance Special

LGiU Fortnightly is our new podcast, bringing you the latest news from the world of local government. We update you on the key events from the past fortnight, as well as news from us and our members, so you’re always in the loop. We’re always looking for more ways to bring you the information you need in a way that works around your busy schedule – let us know what you think by tweeting us @LGiU.

Our first episode is a Finance Special, coinciding with the launch of our annual State of Local Government Finance Survey which has been widely covered in the news.

TRANSCRIPT

Introduction

Ingrid Koehler: Hello, and welcome to the very first edition of LGiU fortnightly. Our bi-weekly podcast highlighting all the stuff that’s important in local government and all the stuff that we’ve been up to – and our members have been up to. I’m Ingrid Koehler…

Jennifer Glover: …and I’m Jennifer Glover.

IK: And we’re really excited about this first podcast. We envision this being another way for us to help you get the news and information that you need and we thought this podcast might be a good way to pick it up if you’ve got a long commute, a drive, you’re on the train or however you get to work. We hope you enjoy it and tell us! Tell us where you’re listening to it, tell us what you like about it – tell us what you don’t like about it (but be very kind…). And give us some ideas about what you’d like to hear in future podcasts.

JG: We’re hoping as it goes on we’ll try and get some guests on, but for now it’s just going to us I’m afraid!

IK: What are you talking about? We’re the most entertaining people at LGiU… in local government! (We might be stretching that just a tad). But hopefully it’ll be interesting and enlightening.

The State of Local Government Finance Survey

So what’s up first? Well, the big thing this past week was…

JG: The State of Local Government Finance Survey, which was out last Thursday, and that has been everywhere.

IK: It has!

JG: You know it’s been everywhere when your parents say ‘oh, I saw that in the news’. So that’s what happened to me last week. ‘Oh, darling, well done!’

IK: It was well done. I heard you on the Briefing Room with David Aaronovitch and thought you did an excellent job. Not to recommend anyone else’s podcast, but you can download that from Radio  4 if you like. It was really good – with Rob Whiteman and Colin Copus.

JG: It was really good fun. The State of Local Government Finance Survey is our annual survey of council leaders, Chief Executives and other senior figures within councils. We ask them how their budgets are coming along, what their key challenges are, what the greatest pressure is on them and their thoughts on the future. So it gives a really in depth look at what’s really going on behind the scenes. And this information was incredibly newsworthy last week, apparently! Everyone was talking about it, it was timely in the sense that Northamptonshire was all over the news. People were asking how this had happened, why this had happened, what’s going on in the sector and wondering whether their councils could be going through the same thing.

It was good timing for us to be able to come to the debate and say ‘look, here’s what’s actually going on across the country’. This isn’t an individual council issue. It was great to hear so many journalists calling us up all week and asking us ‘so how does this actually work? And what is business rate retention? And they were really really trying to wrap their heads around it, which is absolutely brilliant. You don’t often get people willingly asking to talked to about local government finance.

IK: When I was going out on dates, if I knew it wasn’t going well and I knew I didn’t like the guy, I would either talk about local government finance or open elections data.

JG: Oh, my thing was corporation tax. Similar theme though. It’s very effective!

IK: You’ll never see that guy again.

JG: Shut that down. Bless these journalists, they’ve been putting their thinking caps on, trying to get to grips with the issues underlying this and having quite a tough time of it. It’s tough to explain but even tougher for people who haven’t been working in the sector to understand how it works.

I think it’s paid off, because over the weekend we had Any Questions on Radio 4. They were discussing in quite an informed way the challenges facing councils, moving the debate along from last year where people were talking about their council tax going up. Which is a big issue for a lot of people and that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but there was a lot more discussion of why this was happening and more pressure being put on central government to answer the pressing questions.

IK: And for sure, people were talking about council tax and that captured the imagination. Those were the headlines I saw on the red tops this week. I did one interview because Jen was so busy with her press calls. I did a call-in to a regional radio station and apparently all the callers had been asking ‘why don’t you just cut top salaries? Why don’t you cut top executive pay? Cut councillors’ allowances?’ I wasn’t expecting to have to defend this.

JG: We were expecting conversations about why this is happening – which did to some extent happen, but the public were under the impression that salaries and pensions were the issue. I got asked about public sector pensions. legitimate questions, but…

IK: It’s a fair question and one of the benefits of working for local government in the past certainly has been a rather good pension, but that’s not where the problem of future funding is. And certainly neither is pay. But we’ve cut and cut and cut either salaires, people, programmes and spending. But we still don’t have a clear idea of where local government will be financed in the future. And that’s what really has to happen.

JG: This isn’t a typical question of the public sector asking for more money and being pushed back. This is a very different questions. This is ‘where will we be funded from in two years’ time?’ It’s the complete pot of money, not bits around the edges.

IK: But I don’t blame the public for asking this question, because they just don’t have the vernacular or the understanding of local government finance that would enable them to talk about this in a really informed way and put the pressure in the right place. And that’s not to disparage the public at all, it’s complicated.

JG: It’s taken me my whole 2 years at LGiU to get my head around this. And I’ve been doing this most of my day, every day. I don’t think they’ve got much of a chance! That’s what needs to change.

IK: We can help them as local government professionals to make that change, because we will not get this funding issue sorted until the public puts pressure on MPs and central government to change local government finance. We have to empower them to talk about it an a sensible way. THat’s on us as a sector.

JG: That’s what we’re aiming to d with our 2018 project, the Local Finance Taskforce. It’s a local authority led project – this is the first output from it. We’re going to be trying to build on the momentum that we’ve got in the last week around the survey and try and build public and press understanding of what’s really going on, in order for people to articulate what they want their local services to look like and be able to ask the right people for that.

IK: I’m really looking forward to this, and we’ve talked about some ideas about how we do that but I’d love to hear more from our members about how they’ve done it successfully – in annual consultations or other work with the public or business community on helping them to understand public finance.

JG: I saw recently Doncaster Council had put out a great infographic.

IK: Doncaster does some really good stuff, communications wise.

JG: They broke down an average council tax bill into the different parts in a cool infographic, and it was stark how much of it went on adult social care.

IK: I think I lot of people don’t really understand that. It’s about more than just council tax – it’s about understanding that council tax is only a small part of the money that local government needs and spends. We need different ways of raising money.

JG: As Ingrid said, if you have any amazing ideas locally, any thoughts that we should cover in future podcasts, do get in touch. Tweet at us @LGiU, or you can email us info@lgiu.org.uk.

IK: Just let us know.

Daily News Highlights

JG: Next up we have our Daily News highlights. Our Daily News emails are one of our most popular member benefits. They go out every day at 7am except Christmas. They are packed with all the things that local orment needs to know for that day. We’re going to go through and pull out of some of the things we think are most interesting this week.

IK: Keeping on the finance theme, one of the things that intrigued me was Westminster Council’s offer to allow people to pay extra on their council tax if they’re in the highest band of housing – Band H. Apparently people in the most expensive homes in Westminster – just over half of them – kind of liked that idea.

JG: I think that’s brilliant.

IK: It’s a cool idea. I don’t know how many people actually do that, but… would you do it?

JG: I think I would!

IK: I’m not sure I would. Maybe I would… maybe I’m just too cheap.

JG: The Band H council tax was under £1000 – a really low tax area.

IK: That’s much less than a lower banded property would be in other parts of the country. I’m not saying it isn’t reasonable to expect people to contribute more. I think if I were ticking the box that said ‘yes, charge me more’, I’d want to know that it was going on some of my favourite council services.

JG: That raises an interesting democratic question about if you’re paying extra, does that get you an extra voice?

IK: Please spend more on libraries!

JG: But I’m sure that won’t happen. I thought that was a brilliant idea – really inventive.

IK: It takes us back to the idea public conscription, civic contribution… what else was in the news this week?

JG: Obviously it was the cenenterary of the votes for women.

IK: Some women.

JG: Votes for some women isn’t as catchy!

IK: Votes for some women over 30 who had some property or married or… votes for women!

JG: That’s been everywhere, which is brilliant.

IK: Manchester was getting approval for a statute of Emmeline Pankhurst, who I believe hailed from the good city of Manchester.

JG: What was her catchphrase? ‘Deeds not words’? I like that.

IK: I heard a very inspirational talk about what these women did and what they fought for and how dearly they held that democratic right to vote and wanted to participate. It is humbling to think what they sacrificed and what they gave so we could have the vote.

JG Absolutely. And it’s really relevant in this age, when we’re having what some might call a democratic crisis, to remember that we all are only able to participate because of the sacrifice of others. We should hold that dearly.

IK: LGiU was involved last year in the Fawcett Society Commission on Local Government – this isn’t the freshest news as it came out last summer, but that’s something we were involved in. jen, you were involved in that directly, weren’t you?

JG: That was a brilliant project. we worked with the Fawcett Society on a Commission that was chaired by Dame Margaret Hodge, and Jillian McKeegan, who has subsequently become an MP, which is great. We spoke to hundreds – to, thousands of councillors, about their experiences of being in council. As a result of that, we had a really beefy report and loads of recommendations, some of which are starting to be adopted, which is really heartening to see.

We recommended that people draft a council motion to accept the recommendations of the report, and a couple have done that.

Most recently, the Scrutiny Board discussion has raised its head again, which is really great. That was one of the things we discussed within the Commission – the issue of sexism and harassment within the council chamber. People complained that there was no resources to do anything about itl. One of the problems was that back in 2011, the National Standards Board for England was abolished and that meant that the powers for scrutinising councillor behaviour and things like that were massively toned down. I don’t think they were able to properly expel members anymore.

IK: For egregious behavior. Yup – I’m a bit of a local government old hand so I remember when it came in and I remember when it went out, and I would say that the spirit was good bringing it in, but the execution was heavy handed and cumbersome and bureaucratic. It’s great to see it getting a fresher look and maybe an easier way – but there has to be a way for people to be treated fairly fairly and decently in their place of work or civic duty.

JG: Exactly. We heard some brilliant stories during the Commission of really exemplary behavior, and some really, truly shocking stories from councillors.

IK; The report was not really light-hearted reading. I flicked through it after it came out and was like ‘bad news on every page’.

JG We tried! But there wasn’t any [good news]…

IK: Don’t let that put you off, because it was well written. It felt like one of those disaster thrillers. Exciting.

JG: We should have put that on the front cover. ‘Do you like horror?’

IK: This is the report for you. Speaking of horrors, the other thing that caught my eye in the Daily News was around outsourcing of services. The Financial Times has reported that outsourcing is falling out of favour – a third of Conservative local authorities and 42% of Labour councils are taking services back under direct control.

JG: Interesting. Now that’s really topical. This conversation about what councils should and shouldn’t be working with the private sector on, what they should be investing in, whether it’s directly for the public good or in future investments. It’s one of those areas that’s really misunderstand or badly understood.

IK: I think as anyone who works in local government will know, there’s great examples and appalling examples of outsourcing. Personally I think outsourcing can be the right solution in some circumstances, but also I’ve seen it done not very well with disastrous consequences. I’ve worked on the home care stuff and almost all of that is provided by independent providers – and there’s problems with it.

But it’s not all the fault of money grabbing providers. It’s a perfect storm of having less money to go on contracts, so the innovation you would expect out of private sector contracting isn’t there; it’s a very labour intensive business (looking after people in their homes), and with the price of labour going it puts a crunch on everyone. I’m glad that this is back on topic as long as we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – does it make sense to bring services back in? Is it economically sensible to do that?

JG: it has to be put in a wider context – is it the right thing to do for this situation? It can be good, it can be bad. I wonder whether some of this falling out of favour with councils is due to it being more high profile at the moment. People asking questions about relationships with the private sector as opposed to it being an evidence -led decision to do that – economically or for service quality.

IK: I think it’s a bit of both, but obviously the collapse of Carillion hasn’t helped. Profit warnings from other companies that are big service providers or project providers to local government and central government as well. But we’re also looking at councils nearing the red line of the budget balancing.

JG: It will be interesting to see how this conversation progresses.

IK: I’m sure it will continue to progress. But I think the public is ready to have a chat about this, and hopefully will come to sensible conclusions as we along. So what else is interesting? Of course the Daily News is packed full of great stories every day, but one of the things that also caught my eye was that apparently 9 in 10 councils are looking to cut alcoholism funding – or rather treatment for alcoholism. 90% of councils are cutting budgets for some of these drug and alcohol treatment services. Half of councils have no strategy to help the children of alcoholics.

JG: That comes back to trying to articulate what the knock-on effects are of prolonged uncertainty in local government finance, which seems to be a technical issue – but it’s not. It’ shaving tangible real world consequences, in that preventive services like the drug and alcohol treatment services are seeing cuts. The knock on effect of that is that more children are in danger or not being helped. That’s a straight line you can draw from that.

IK: And it means fewer people in work, so there’s economic consequences. It also raises the question of whose responsibility is this. Is this a public health thing, which falls under local government? Or is this a direct health thing? With the children of alcoholics, that’s a young person’s mental health issue, who should be responsible for that?

JG: I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s the health and social care integration issue – this could well be something that integration deals with very well, but that hasn’t been on the cards for a little while.

IK: Well, I don’t want to go into health and social care integration on this particular podcast, because we could talk about that for ages – and will.

And finally… Britain’s longest serving councillor.

JG: Question mark. Yes, this is a brilliant story. Great grandfather Lloyd Wilce, who’s 89, is believed to be Britain’s longest serving councillor. He was first elected to Cinderford Town Council in 1949. Goodness. He then served for 25 years on the East Dean District Council, which became Forest of Dean. That’s a lifetime of dedication! So congratulations Lloyd. If you are in fact the longest serving councillor!

IK: If you have a longer serving councillor at your council, tweet us @LGiU or email in info@lgiu.org.uk. We get asked this by the press a couple times a year.

JG: We do, because we have to do some digging every year when we update our facts and figures page. There is – as you all know – no reliable data on councillors. You have to do some digging. So this has saved us a little bit of work! Hopefully.

IK: it’s fabulous, and it would be great if we celebrated these kinds of things. Of course we do celebrate these things with our annual C’llr Awards, but it’s great.

JG: We like to leave you on a high.

That’s all from us this week!

IK: In future podcasts, we’ll be talking about our local elections, coming up in May, really exciting.

JG: A lot of you will be readying the decks for that, I imagine.

IK: Busy time of year We’ll also be talking about our other two big policy projects this year, the Public Trust Lab and the Local Government Housing and Homelessness Commission. Those are quite interesting and exciting as well. If you have any suggestions for other topics we should cover, let us know.

Both: See you next time!