Cllr Paul Carter is chairman of the County Councils Network and leader of Kent County Council.
As many commentators have pointed out, the Brexit vote is symbolic of the divide that has grown between Westminster and local communities. The result can be seen as a protest vote; a victory for ordinary people who have felt forgotten. The widening gap between the haves and have-nots has fuelled disenfranchisement and the feeling Whitehall is out of touch.
Theresa May’s One-Nation speech was spot on when she said: “We will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.”
The Government needs to bring decisions closer to communities, addressing concerns that some areas aren’t feeling the benefits of the economy’s upturn in fortunes, and the growing apprehension over the pressure on public services. And we need to reassure our young people who are struggling to get on the first rung of the housing ladder or into employment.
There is no doubt that devolution now has even more relevance in bridging the gap between Westminster and local areas. Empowering councils through the ‘devolution’ of resources, power and investment to county areas will equip local authorities to deliver excellent public services to help ease the pressure. Central government must now loosen its grip.
There is an appetite for ambitious devolution deals in counties, with settlements that enhance and build on county governance. In county areas, we hope for more flexible governance and a departure from a ‘one-size fits all’ policy, as set out in CCN’s IPPR study last November. Instead, the potential added layer of bureaucracy in the form of directly elected mayors has got in the way of empowering counties.
Yet, if local government is to truly support Government in delivering its post-referendum agenda, we must ensure the devolution of power and resources are supported by a wider policy agenda that provides counties with the platform to support our local economies, maximise service efficiencies, and drive reform across the public sector.
The starting point here must be backing counties to achieve ambitious savings targets and to redesign services, in partnership with local organisations, while completing Greg Clark’s reforms to local government finance.
Counties have proven their ability to make unprecedented efficiency savings in the face of rising demand, minimising back-office expenses and protecting frontline services.
The figures speak for themselves. Counties spend less than two per cent of their budgets on support services, the lowest out of any other local authority type, while our authorities have reduced employee expenditure by 31 per cent over the last Parliament, again, more than any other local authority type.
However, sound financial management should not be misinterpreted as a reason to inflict further funding reductions on county authorities, but used as an opportunity to deliver fairer funding and spread our efficient methods across other parts of the public sector.
The Government’s fairer funding review must recognise the unique and complex needs of our member authorities in delivering some of the most crucial public services – protecting the most vulnerable and elderly – and our essential role in supporting business and housing growth.
With 100 per cent business rate retention due to come in by 2020, we want to work with Government and key partners such as the District Councils’ Network and Rural Services Network to ensure fairer funding, particularly for our rural areas, and the right incentives are put in place to promote growth.
The right devolution for local areas has a critical role to play in enabling councils to take advantage of the opportunities offered by business rates retention and achieving the new Secretary of State’s ambitions of rapidly increasing housing supply.
County Councils are already responsible for 93 per cent of growth related expenditure in two-tier area. By backing counties and our local partners through ambitious deals will ensure economic stability at a time of uncertainty, while presenting new opportunities to grow our economies, which already account for 41 per cent of England’s GVA.
If infrastructure, transport, and housing decisions are taken at a county-wide strategic level, we can take a visionary approach with our partners to unlock growth, skills, enterprise, and job creation bespoke to local economies, helping our communities thrive.
Equipped with the right devolved budgets across education and skills, we can give our young people the tools to succeed in life. With greater control over transport and infrastructure investment, we can provide an even better environment for our local businesses to thrive. And by reforming the planning system and aligning funding incentives we can deliver more homes for hard working people.
But a devolution agenda that narrowly focuses on growth will not deal with the challenges facing our country at a time of rising expectations.
Through devolution, counties’ shrewd work in creating more efficient services can be translated across other parts of the public sector, while our track record in delivering large-scale strategic services, such as children’s, adult social care, and education support, must be harnessed to deal with the mounting pressures on the frontline.
In considering reforms to children’s services and education, we must remember that counties already deliver to high-standards. Of all authorities rated by Ofsted as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ in 2014/15, 60 per cent of them were CCN members. This academic year, CCN members were the best performing local authority type for delivering first choice school places for families: 91.2 per cent.
At time when 750,000 new school places will be needed by 2025 and children’s social care referrals have risen 11 per cent in counties, we need carefully consider whether high-performing councils should be written out of the script when we can offer solutions to Government’s biggest concerns.
We do not expect a monopoly over services. Healthy competition and a mixed economy of provision in both education and children’s services can drive up standards. But while new freedoms to innovate and maintain the services are welcome, counties should be supported to deliver the services we do well and provided with new powers to intervene where schools are letting down pupils and vulnerable children are being put at risk.
Instead, there is the appetite for a revised role for local authorities in education, away from the centralist one size fits all policy of academisation. We can use the opportunity of skills policy being transferred to the Department for Education to devolve and better integrate services with education support. This will ensure those who choose a non-academic route through vocational qualifications have the best opportunities get on in life through apprenticeships and skilled trades.
By enhancing rather than diminishing the county role, our strong strategic capacity and expertise can be harnessed as a driver of public service reform, joining up local services, making them learner and more responsive.
No more so is this true than in health and social care, where the Government has reaffirmed its key pledges to protect NHS funding and improve access to GPs and primary care.
To deliver the transformation agenda set out by the NHS Chief Executive, the NHS needs to do more to learn the financial discipline hard fought by local authorities, while truly integrating health with social care services and helping local authorities stabilise social care markets.
Unfortunately, some in the local government sector have proposed the opposite, suggesting that health should subsume social care as an easy fix to what is one of the biggest financial and policy challenges facing the country.
Such a proposition couldn’t be built on a more false and simplistic premise.
CCN’s LaingBuisson study showed that county care markets are already teetering on the edge, while our LG Futures research showed our members, not metropolitan authorities, have witnessed the largest reductions in their funding and demand for services.
Adult social care needs stability at a time of scarce resources, coupled with the advantages of being delivered at scale by large strategic authorities and our track-record of transforming services to reduce costs and improve outcomes.
Fragmenting social care commissioning and provision risks further destabilisation, ultimately driving up costs at a time when counties, private providers or the NHS can most ill afford it.
Instead, councils of the size and scale of CCN members have the ability to make the health service more democratically accountable and efficient, increasing public scrutiny and rationalising their back-office, assets, property and commissioning functions.
Working with Health and Wellbeing Boards, they have the capacity to drive local Sustainability and Transformation Plans, refocusing services away from expensive acute care and instead taking services to the community, avoiding hospitalisation and investing more in appropriate nursing, residential, and domiciliary care to support the elderly and vulnerable in their own homes. In turn, this could ease the pressure on access to primary healthcare and GPs.
County authorities have already stepped up to the plate when asked by the Government help balance the national books, whilst maintaining quality public services.
Now, with the foundations already in place, we want to rise to the challenge again and offer the Government both stability and solutions during this crucial period. Let’s hope this new dawn offers us this opportunity.