Cuts, outsourcing and democratic deficits are stunting councils’ fight against coronavirus
England is one of the most centralised nations in the world. For years, local councils have faced brutal cuts to their budgets and stripping away of their powers by Westminster. Now they are the ones who are expected to support the most vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis, and it is little wonder that many are struggling.
Little wonder, too, that people don’t clap for councils. But maybe we need to – we need to see local government as something to be proud of and support, like the NHS, to come out of this crisis.
If you ask pretty much anyone in England what their local council does, most people would have only a very vague idea. That is partly due to a failure on behalf of councils to communicate exactly what they do and why it is important (just listen to councils talking publicly about their role in “delivering services” – what does that even mean?). But far more importantly it is because local government in England has been reduced to something that is barely worthy either of the descriptor “local” or of the name “government”.
Under successive national Governments, councils’ powers in many policy areas that are nominally within their mandate – such as collecting revenue, administering benefits, planning policy, licensing, etc – have been severely limited such that they really only do what the national legislation tells them they have to. In those areas where councils can have more discretion – such as on waste and recycling, or adult social care – many if not most councils have outsourced their functions to private companies under the mantra of efficiency. Any remaining functions of local government that are not statutory duties – such as supporting community or cultural events – have often faced budgetary cuts (and I will return to the issue of budgets later).
What has all this got to do with coronavirus? When I speak to coordinators of local mutual aid groups in my area of Norwich, people have said things like, “we’ll keep doing this until the council steps in”, or, “where is the council?”. Councils are expected to step up, coordinate, and support the most vulnerable. But they can’t. Councils are not in a position to coordinate or to take over from mutual aid groups.
Don’t get me wrong – council officers I know are working f***ing hard. They are doing 14-hour shifts, including over weekend, trying to phone round everyone who has registered as vulnerable. They are dealing with a massive rise in benefits claims, dealing with businesses applying for grants and business rates discounts, trying to find accommodation for homeless people after the government suddenly ordered them to take everyone off the street, trying to make sure that contractors have proper safety measures for staff such as bin collectors, trying to make sure that contractors still deliver social care, moving libraries online, fixing roads, and closing playgrounds. They are doing this on a skeleton staff. They are also, at least in Norwich and Norfolk, working to coordinate deliveries of food to people who have no other sources of support, securing donations for the local foodbank, coordinating with local charities, and making sure that mutual aid groups have materials they need.
But with councils’ budgets already, on average, 30% lower than in 2010 (a figure which masks real disparities in how cuts have been spread across different councils: councils in more deprived areas have been hit hardest), many councils have in recent years had to cut staff, making the job of responding to the many demands on them now much harder. Likewise, it is much harder to ensure that waste collection, social care, and all the other functions that have been outsourced, continue, and continue safely, when councils are reliant on private contractors to deliver them.
At the same time, despite cash injections from central Government (that magic money tree does exist after all!), many councils are now facing profound budgetary uncertainty. Many have been using up their reserves in recent years just to keep afloat in the face of cuts. Those are reserves which existed for just such a time as this, now largely gone. Others have been relying on income from commercial properties that they have bought, which may now be hit by recession. Many also rely on income from car parks, business rates and council tax – all of which are vanishing, just when council spending is likely to be needed most.
There are some or even a lot of councils that are woefully inefficient and that have been slow to respond to the current crisis. Other councils (including my own), seem to have a worrying willingness to let democracy slide during this crisis, with public meetings cancelled instead of going online and powers delegated to unelected officers and members of the administration without proper scrutiny. Yet I believe that these faults are in turn partly due to the lack of public interest in local government, which is based on the weakness of the sector as outlined above. I believe we would be in a much better position now if local government in England had powers and funding worthy of the name. Surely it is not a coincidence that Germany, which is held up as a model of testing for the virus, has a much more devolved political system than England, allowing local authorities to be freer and quicker in their responses and the national government to focus on the tasks that only it can fulfill?
So, when it comes to rebuilding after this crisis, it is vital that we do not just talk about a new economy frameworks and new government at national level, but also about how we can reform the system of local government. Like a lot of people, I see a lot of hope in the way mutual aid networks have formed. I believe councils should aim to facilitate and support, not replace grassroots and hyper-local movements. But in order to do so councils themselves need to be properly funded (so that they don’t have to rely on regressive council tax, perverse business rates, and ecologically damaging car park revenue) and have greater ability to respond to local priorities. That would in turn help to increase scrutiny of and public interest in local government, and thus increase accountability.
I would like to see a debate about what councils can and should be doing, now and after the crisis, and what they need to do that. To start it off, I’m open for contact, via Twitter, Facebook, or via email.
Image credit: Roger Blackwell – Creative Commons