School choice

Bury, Liverpool, and Hartlepool councils have announced that they will not be reopening their primary schools on June 1st – even on the limited basis the Government has called for. However, in an article on this site yesterday, Mark Lehain pointed out that most pupils in England attend academies and free schools – these operate independently of local authorities. I’m afraid the problem is that while academies dominate among secondary schools, the primary schools are more likely to be “maintained” – and still caught within municipal empires.

Liverpool has ten primary academies. Bury has 15. Hartlepool has 12.

This still leaves the difficulty of the intransigence to the powerful teaching unions to overcome. The great harm that they are able to cause does show there is unfinished business in education reform. The practice of the public sector collecting trade union membership subscriptions via payroll (the “check-off”) system should be completely ended – for teachers and others. It gives the impression that there is official approval – or even a requirement – for union membership. Teachers pay and conditions should be negotiated on an individual basis – such anachronisms as pay scales and a “School Teachers’ Review Body” to negotiate national arrangements should be swept away.

So it would be welcome if more schools converted to become academies and that heads and governors of all schools were granted greater independence. But we can already see that the changes introduced by Michael Gove, when he was Education Secretary, are making a tangible difference over where the decision making takes place.

Will councils go bust?

Further claims of local authorities going bust have appeared in the media. “Councils threaten bankruptcy as coronavirus crisis tears £10bn hole in finances,” was the alarmist headline in The Times. It continued:

“Many authorities are openly discussing the prospect of issuing a 114 notice, effectively signalling their bankruptcy, as they reel from the financial impact of Covid-19. Among the councils thought to be the worst hit are those in the Yorkshire and Humber region. They have discussed making a joint declaration that they have run out of money after running up additional bills of more than £600m. At least another 17 local authorities are also considering issuing a 114 notice, following the example of Northamptonshire county council in 2018. This would force them to impose severe spending restrictions with cuts to services such as parks, libraries and museums.”

It is certainly true that the financial pressure is real. As I have written earlier, it is delusional for councils to expect to be “fully compensated” for such items as a fall in revenue for parking fines. Savings will have to be found – the scope for which is vast.

But talk of bankruptcy is to misunderstand the nature of council finances. Councils are under a legal obligation to set balanced budgets. They are not allowed to run deficits – unlike the arrangement with the NHS, for instance. However, we don’t usually talk of an NHS Trust being “bankrupt” if it runs a deficit in a particular year. Northamptonshire was failing to maintain a balanced budget, and so central Government intervened. A Section 114 order bans all new expenditure, with the exception of safeguarding vulnerable people and statutory services: it is used if a Council is failing to balance its budget. If after 14 days it hasn’t managed to sort matters out, then central Government gets involved, sending in its own team. An unfortunate position to be in, but “bankrupt”? In Northamptonshire, staff continued to be paid, services continued to be provided – some grip was brought in on the mismanagement and wasteful spending. Last year came the news that Northamptonshire had underspent by £4.5 million.

Al fresco eating

A victory for ConservativeHome. Earlier this month, Nicholas Boys Smith wrote for us declaring:

“Let’s make it easier, faster and cheaper for restaurants, bars and shops to make use of the pavement. In public squares above a certain size or pedestrianised high streets above a certain width, there could even be a blanket permission to make use of the public highway up to a certain depth.”

The Sunday Telegraph reports:

“Ministers are even considering a “blanket permission” for restaurants and cafes to make use of public squares or pedestrianised streets above a certain width for stalls, or chairs and tables once customers are allowed to eat on their premises again and where the furniture would not block routes for disabled people. The move comes after Nicholas Boys Smith, who has advised Mr Jenrick on improving the design of buildings, warned that businesses currently faced significant red tape, and a cost of up to £300, to seek permission to place tables in front of their premises.”

This was an issue I took up when I was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham. There was duplication as a cafe owner needed to pay both for a license and planning permission to put a table on the pavement. Of course, no special permission should be needed provided the pavement had sufficient width (say six feet) deemed necessary to avoid obstruction. Incidentally imposing those charges didn’t even help the Council financially – the salaries of the Tables and Chairs Officers were higher than the fees they collected in.

Many Conservatives are worried that the aftermath of the virus will be increased state control and diminished individual freedom. Emergency restrictions have had a habit previously of remaining in place after the emergency has passed – for instance food rationing was continued for years after the Second World War ended. Perhaps so. But there may also be counter examples where pressure to lift unnecessary burdens increases…