Cllr David Hodge is the Leader of Surrey County Council and Chairman of the County Councils Network.
Last week we saw the leaders of all major UK political parties head to Scotland to describe how the devolution of power can transform a part of the UK.
Over the last few months counties have likewise come together, united by the belief that moving decisions closer to the people affected by them leads to better results. Though we do not want independence, we do want a new relationship with Whitehall, centred on a new deal for local government that really benefits local residents.
The County Councils Network’s Our Plan for Government features a detailed set of solutions to place power back into the hands of England’s communities. On social care, children’s services, unemployment reduction, supporting local enterprises and a host of other issues, we argue that counties and our city partners can make the essential choices that lead to better services and further savings for the public sector. More pragmatically, counties are responsible for public services delivered to 23 million people while Scotland has 5 million people; any party aiming to form a Government cannot and must not forget this.
The plan is centred on two things. The concept of fully integrated public services coordinated on the basis of ‘One Place, One Budget’ and focused on user needs is combined with a new Core Settlement, that allow strategic councils more flexibility to share in the proceeds of local growth and collaborate in new ways. By retaining revenues from business rates, access to tax increment financing and the power to vary local business rates we will not need a hand out from HMT to achieve change, we will have the power to fund the transformation ourselves.
These are essential to ensure counties can deliver vital services. Local government finance is becoming increasingly unsustainable. By 2015/16 core funding for local government will have suffered a real terms reduction of 40 per cent over the course of this parliament. We appreciate the need to continue playing our part in reducing the deficit, but to do so we cannot be tied to the old, siloed way of working. Crucially the Government should commit to a fully integrated health and social care system by 2020, eliminating the expensive artificial divisions within the care system. Unsustainable pressures on our school places, our care services and the need to create need forms of collaboration, like multi-agency safeguarding hubs, all require a new start for local government finance.
We are offering whoever forms the next Government a fair deal. Allow us the discretion to reform the way we arrange and fund services and we will offer the Exchequer an increased tax yield from economic growth and a return on investment for public funds. This would see counties continue to be one of the most efficient parts of the public sector as a whole.
When you contrast the impact of initiatives like the Work Programme with the success of local projects designed to generate jobs linked to the needs of local employers, you see the potential of counties to act as local leaders. Scotland has shown that the UK’s electorate is not tired of politics, but tired of feeling disconnected from the key decisions about policies imposed on their communities. The logic of localism does not end at Hadrian’s Wall. England needs a new relationship between central and local government, giving the 23 million people who live in county areas more control of the local decisions that shape their lives. CCN’s Plan for Government is a step towards this goal.