People and places

The LGA’s annual conference provided a welcome and positive opportunity to look at the challenges ahead.

As much as virtual working has served a purpose, you cannot beat being in a room full of people who are passionate about delivering for people and places.

So, being back at the LGA’s annual conference in person for the first time in three years was fantastic – catching up with old and new colleagues, and bringing the challenges and opportunities for local government to life, alongside the 1,300-plus delegates who attended.  

Among the highlights of a busy three days in Harrogate were sessions on the cost-of-living crisis; the launch of our Debate Not Hate campaign against abuse and intimidation of councillors; publication of the Ipsos report we commissioned, outlining predictions for the future of local government; and the very popular Innovation Zone and LGA Hub, which have evolved to become the beating heart of conference.

We heard from high-profile speakers including Shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy, Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ed Davey, Olympian and businessman Kriss Akabusi, and crossbencher Baroness Lola Young.

Former government speakers to address conference included the then Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, former Local Government Minister Kemi Badenoch, and Nadhim Zahawi, the former Education Secretary, now Chancellor. His predecessor at the Treasury, Rishi Sunak, also visited us in Harrogate.

We were joined by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who was re-elected as the LGA’s President following a meeting of our General Assembly at conference, while our 25th anniversary provided a great opportunity to reflect on how far we have come.

Since 1997, we have been able to deliver so much for our communities, including the return of public health to local government, the removal of the housing revenue account cap, and getting a billion pounds back from the Icelandic banking crisis.

The key has been having a single, cross-party voice for local government, which puts residents first, not politics.

But we need to look forward to some of the current and coming challenges.

At our last in-person annual conference three years ago, nobody could have predicted COVID-19, Ukraine, and the cost-of-living crisis.

The pandemic demonstrated, yet again, just what local government can do, and as leaders of place, councils will be key to rebuilding our communities and economies.

At conference, we heard a hard-hitting account of the impact of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine from Oleksandr Synkevych, Mayor of Mykolaiv, as well as from Refugees Minister Lord Richard Harrington.

I am amazed and heartened that thousands of people have stepped forward to support those fleeing the war. Councils have rapidly responded, developing new services and programmes of support for the newest and most vulnerable members of our society.

But those underlying issues from three years ago are still with us, if not more so: demographic pressures; a shortage of care workers; inflation and a rising cost of living; and now care reforms, which, while laudable, are placing a huge pressure on councils.

On the latter, we agree with the cap on individual care costs, that there should be a fair cost of care, and that care workers deserve a decent wage. The problem is that this has to be paid for, and implementing and monitoring the system will take additional resource – which we do not have.

Care Minister Gillian Keegan’s post-conference announcement of a delay to self-funders accessing council care home rates was a welcome acknowledgement of these pressures, but more needs to be done. 

The Health and Social Care Levy needs to be genuinely shared and, given the lack of capacity in an already stretched system, the Government needs to allow time to learn from the trailblazers before rolling out the charging reforms further.

Communities are best placed to address the issues they face”

In the longer term, we need a place-based approach to health, locally led with a focus on prevention and early intervention rather than cure.

More widely, all councils play their part in improving the health of our residents, with our housing and green spaces vital to improving wellbeing and tackling social isolation.

This is why it is positive that government listened, and that the new integrated care partnerships will be locally led: we continue to push for health systems to be place-focused, not acute-focused.

Children’s social care and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are increasingly becoming issues, because of expense and a dysfunctional system. It is welcome that many of our suggestions were incorporated in the recent SEND Review, schools White Paper and the independent review of children’s services.

These reforms will make a difference, but only if health and schools play their part, and the LGA will continue to push for them to be held to account locally.

Housing is one of our big issues. It is too expensive, and all too often poor quality and unsuitable.

However, for the first time in my 13 years in local government, where every change to planning regulation seemed to make it worse, I was greatly relieved to see proposals in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill that have a genuine chance to improve the system, including a focus on a plan-led system and incentivising build-out of sites.

I constantly remind the Government that decision-making and funding should always be devolved down to the lowest practicable level.

Local communities are best placed to address the issues they face, led by councillors as their locally elected and accountable leaders.

But there is much detail to be fleshed out, and we all need to help free up the tentacles of Whitehall and allow services to be delivered faster, more effectively, and locally.

For instance, bidding for short-term funding through 448 different grants and funding streams is not efficient: long-term, ‘single pot’ funding for councils is of benefit to both central and local government, and the communities we serve.

At conference, Michael Gove committed to reducing the number of funding streams, and to a two-year local government finance settlement from 2023/24 – measures we hope to see his successor, Greg Clark, deliver on.

In respect of funding, last November we thought we had a decent settlement, albeit overly dependent on council tax rises. But with Russia’s war on Ukraine, we have seen a dramatic increase in costs, way beyond that which we or government could have anticipated.

LGA analysis (see p4) shows that rising energy prices, spiralling inflation, and National Living Wage pressures are set to add £3.6 billion in unforeseen extra cost pressures on council budgets in 2024/25, compared with November.

Longer term funding, fewer burdens from government and alternative revenue streams would help. But, put simply, the numbers just do not add up. We need a local government funding version of the state pension’s ‘triple lock’.

We desperately need to protect budgets and services from the impact of inflation, without which there will be real service cuts to some of the most vulnerable in our communities.

The LGA will continue to work with you to get through these difficult times, both through lobbying as the single voice for local government and through our outstanding local government sector support programme.

As the nation navigates these uncertain economic headwinds, I am confident that, as local leaders, we will continue to stand strong, resolute and determined in delivering the best for our communities.

Please visit www.local.gov.uk/events for presentations from this year’s LGA annual conference. Next year’s event takes place in Bournemouth from 4-6 July 2023.

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