During the budget-setting period, county leaders and their cabinet colleagues debate some of the most difficult choices they make all year.
Where can efficiencies be secured or service reductions made? By how much to raise council tax and whether to levy the social care precept? What capital expenditure fulfils strategic objectives and what impact will our decisions have on residents and our staff?
While this year has still been a challenge, the burden has been lessened by the Government’s funding announcements for councils last summer, which have now been officially locked into the local government finance settlement ahead of its ratification by Parliament.
At the time of the announcement, the County Councils Network (CCN) was at the forefront of calling for social care grant funding to be ‘rolled over’ and for additional resource.
CCN said at the time that this intervention by the Government was hugely significant and made real inroads in bringing down the overall funding gap facing councils.
Of course, each council has its own individual circumstances and priorities. For Hertfordshire, this extra funding and the continuation of the social care precept will allow us to invest in stabilising the local care market – particularly the retention and recruitment of frontline care workers.
Yet, even if all county authorities in the CCN membership raised their council tax and precept by the maximum allowed, they still face a funding shortfall of £1.3 billion – and over the course of this Parliament, a cumulative gap of £7.7 billion.
Therefore, a focus for CCN will be advocacy ahead of the Government’s March Budget. The network will be advocating additional funding in the Budget for all councils, alongside encouraging the Government to publish its allocations of the £500 million highways maintenance fund. This needs to reflect CCN’s analysis, published in January, which shows huge regional disparities in what councils can spend on road maintenance and capital projects.
“There are question marks over whether local council tax is a sustainable way of funding public services such as social care”
At the very least, next month’s Budget should signal a sustainable settlement for local authorities in the long term. With the future for councils remaining uncertain, and question marks over whether local council tax is a sustainable way of funding public services such as social care, the Government can set out an ambitious funding envelope for local government in the forthcoming Spending Review.
The Fair Funding Review will remain a key priority for CCN, not least after Local Government Minister Luke Hall confirmed the Government’s intention to implement the review. We will support ministers in realising the review’s revisions to the way in which funding is allocated ahead of budget setting for 2021/22.
Of course, we recognise that simply shouting on the sidelines for more money isn’t going to cut the mustard with this Government. We need to make a persuasive case that investing in councils will create real and tangible change for our communities.
In a new report from Grant Thornton, we will show the great work carried out by county authorities in ‘place-shaping’ and economic growth – and how much more they can do with fresh powers and resource.
We have a supportive set of ministers, and it is the sector’s job to make its arguments as compelling as possible – demonstrating that we can play a major part in the ‘levelling up’ agenda.