Tony Devenish is the London Assembly Member for Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, and the City of Westminster.
I turned on the TV news this week to be met with a Conservative Party councillor, calling for national tax rises. I appreciate the summer media “silly season ” is here but the dedicated public servants at the Local Government Association can do much better. Yes we need a long term sustainable solution on care. The 2010 Dilnot Commission through to “that Manifesto” of 2017 and the so-called “Dementia tax ” makes that statement a no-brainer. We all recognise this both as elected councillors and in our own lives. My mother is 88 and Surrey County Council and NHS are in my prayers.
But it is always the easy option to shout “more money”. We have at least four major political parties: Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, and Plaid Cymru who do little else. Not to mention the BBC. I appreciate the LGA is “cross-party” but surely we Conservatives can do better than join the usual suspects in attempting to burden the public with yet more tax rises. Please wait for the Government proposal (yes delayed) until the autumn.
I know myself, as a Westminster City councillor, that local government has made more efficiencies since 2010 than all other part of the public sector put together. Who says “we’re all in this together”? However, at the LGA Conference in Birmingham last month, most councillors and local government officers would privately admit that there was far more still to be done in terms of driving better value for money at the coal face of local democracy.
While some councils have driven procurement efficiencies, merged back offices, and even merged councils and got rid of layers of staff, others have not. If the LGA wishes to ask Government for billions of pounds more, and there is no doubt by the 2030s more money will be needed for adult care, a grown up argument must involve some component of part match funding. The Treasury is not Santa Claus.
Certainly there is unease across local government (and the rest of the public sector) that the NHS “has it easy” with more funding increases. I will never forget, when I became the first Cabinet Member for Public Health on Westminster City Council, the looks on my council officers faces when they studied the pay, holiday conditions, and gold plated pensions which those NHS staff transferring to the Council received. Far more generous than the not ungenerous local authority equivalent.
One major component to drive such potential part match funding is self-evident in most but not all local authorities. Walk into most council offices during the summer months (or much of the rest of the year , especially Fridays) and what will strike you first is the under-used office space. Land banking is also still rife. Many councils own land handed over from parts of the public sector which are long gone, remember the Inner London Education Authority? Much of their land is still not built on. Sir Oliver Letwin MP has explored the huge scale of state land banking.
I’m sorry to be blunt – but councils must continue to take the lead in solving social care like all our other challenges. Acting like a trade union is neither an effective way to behave nor will it win the argument with Government. Keeping going on efficiency measures including town hall building redevelopments will also drive both our jobs and homes agendas – local authorities most pressing priorities after our social care worries.