Cllr David Hodge, Leader of Surrey County Council and Local Government Association Conservative Group Leader
The cry from Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench was predictable. With many Conservative councils benefiting from Greg Clark’s last minute changes to the local government funding settlement ministers were accused of a stitch up.
Of course, what Mr Corbyn and his team chose to ignore was that the Government had responded to clear facts and figures.
The announcement by ministers that an extra £300m would be made available to councils was a result of Conservative councillors and MPs making a consistent – and overwhelmingly reasonable – case.
The Local Government Association’s (LGA) Conservative Chairman Lord Porter and I were consistent in our message to ministers – the settlement had to improve and better reflect the increasing demand for key council services.
In the same vein, Kent’s Conservative Leader Paul Carter from the County Councils Network and Rushcliffe’s Conservative Leader Neil Clarke from the District Councils Network carried the same message to Westminster. Teresa O’Neill, representing London, also played a key role.
Meanwhile our MPs were making the same point to ministers.
Many of us may have hoped for more funding to support vital services currently under severe strain. However, it should be noted that we have also achieved a package of measures that will bring lasting improvements to the communities we serve.
Firstly, the Government announced that no council will face the prospect of receiving a negative grant over the next two years.
Secondly, by agreeing to a fair funding review minsters have recognised the need to improve the funding formula for local government. We can now work to get a system that better reflects the changing basis of needs and the real costs of delivering services in different parts of the country.
This opportunity is vital given that Whitehall’s new method for distributing funding has proved beneficial for some councils but hugely detrimental for others.
Finally, concessions to borough and district councils over council tax, planning fees and more time to consider proposed four year funding deals are also good news for local government.
While no Conservative relishes calling for extra funding, we need to recognise the growing demand for services among those in genuine need. For example, the pressure on elderly care and mental health services is undeniable.
That’s why the LGA was insistent in calling for extra money be made available. Lord Porter and I feared that ministers would simply redistribute the provisional settlement, which would have resulted in losers as well as winners. We fought quietly, behind the scenes, and ministers listened to us.
This only goes to underline how important it is for the sector to have an organisation that can speak with one voice for the whole of local government. Our communities would be in a considerably weaker position without the LGA.
But, despite our successes, there is still a great deal more for us address.
For councils with adult social care responsibility the pressures of dealing with an ageing population are a long way from being solved.
In Surrey the number of elderly people is set to increase by 20,000 by 2020. And the cost of providing adult social care services is increasing by a staggering £20m every year.
I lobbied hard last year for councils with adult social care responsibility to be able to raise council tax to deal with this specific pressure. So, I was pleased when the Chancellor announced in November’s Autumn Statement that an extra two per cent could be raised.
The measure means Surrey can raise an extra £12m to help tackle the growing demand for care services. But this will only help reduce the gap. It falls a long way short of closing it.
That was one of the reasons why I – along with many other leaders – was so focused on getting the government to improve the settlement. Without any change we faced asking our residents to pay more council tax only to receive reduced services.
Now it is vital ministers reconsider the level of support – as well as the proposed allocation – of the Better Care Fund to ensure it is fair and equitable to all those councils facing severe demand pressures on elderly care services.
While some will focus on adult social care, other may focus on the Government’s proposals on social housing policy. Many face the prospect of losing the vast majority of their social housing stock without the finance to replace it. If this situation is not resolved satisfactorily it not only risks depleting affordable housing stocks but also pushing up benefit bills.
Councils are the answer to many of the Government’s worries over affordable housing, so they need to be given the ability to tackle the issue.
These are only two of the many issues we need to resolve with Government, but I am confident we can do it.
If our recent experiences have shown anything it is that the more united we are in our voice the more we can expect to achieve.
As one team we can make a difference locally by bringing lasting improvements to the services we provide to our residents. That, ultimately, is what we’re here for.