Party conference season is over for another year and much ink has been spilled over the headline announcements. However, LGiU used the conferences as an opportunity to catch up with our members, council leaders and policy-makers about their views on the challenges facing local government. We’ve been looking at how national policy announcements match up to what we think are the priorities for the sector.
With over half having declared climate emergencies this year, councils have recognised that climate change is now a major issue for local voters and that they should be leading the way. However, given councils’ current financial challenges, much focus is on how to realistically deliver on these promises. Many people we spoke to pointed to the fact that climate change issues can be tied into other local priorities, such as air quality targets and health, transport planning for liveable places, and designing climate-compliant Local Plans. Involving the public and getting cross-party consensus within the council were also seen as a key requirement in achieving ambitious climate goals which may cost a lot of money.
Housing and planning
Complaints about the Local Plan system were common, with councils calling for reform of the cumbersome and slow approval processes. There were also calls for more powers around housing and planning to allow councils to better manage the local residential and commercial stock and deliver on housebuilding and local growth goals. Such powers included allowing councils to charge council tax on empty properties, having more enforcement powers around HMO infringements and simplifying the change in property use for commercial units to reflect changes in high street business activity (eg retail to leisure). There were also concerns about housebuilding post-Brexit, with some pointing to timber supply issues and others asking if we should be saving more agricultural land from housebuilding.
Finance and investments
There is a very live debate within the sector about the desirability of councils funding their services through commercial investments and councils borrowing large sums of money. Some felt uncomfortable with having to make risky decisions without the necessary expert skills, while others welcomed the additional flexibility. There were also debates around how the future funding system should work, including ideas around splitting funding by universal services (to be funded through council tax) and individual services (redistributed businesses rates), calls for better taxation of digital businesses and questions about where the business rate retention pilots will be going next.
Devolution and governance
Councils were clear that the devolution debate will need to restart soon, having stalled in the past two years, and those we spoke to welcomed the opportunity to continue discussions about new responsibilities and funding arrangements. However there were concerns about the capacity in central government to provide this direction and support, given the staff cuts in the civil service. There is also an active debate about the merits of unitarisation. Accountability was a key theme, with some calling for the introduction of local Public Accounts Committees to be run by the council to hold other local public bodes to account, and universal agreement that local decisions should be made without interference from MPs.
For a full round-up of all party conference action, watch out for our member-only briefing next week on the key announcements and how they might affect local government.
Image taken by Alice Buszard 2019