Porter about to bow out of LGA? But his one liners will live on it seems

Local Government Chronicle online
Friday 06 May 2016
LGC briefing: Local elections analysed
Commentary on the local election results

Political earthquake of the day: Breaking: Porter predicts Tories have lost control of LGA

Under chaos theory a hurricane can ensue in China as a result of something as minor and apparently unrelated as a butterfly flapping its wings over New Mexico.

On a similar principle, something as insignificant as a set of local elections in which virtually no seats changed control is on the cusp of causing a political earthquake in Westminster.

The political earthquake takes the form of a change in power at the Local Government Association but the butterfly may be composed of slightly more than a set of only moderately compelling electoral contests. As will be explained below, political skulduggery lurked behind its local democracy wings.

To understand this chaos we need to cast our minds back a year when the results of the local elections left the LGA on a political knife-edge. The Conservative group came out slightly above Labour after all of the calculations were undertaken to determine which party was in the ascendancy.

Within the past 24 hours it seemed likely the Tories would retain LGA control. Few people believed Jeremy Corbyn’s prediction that he would gain seats and the first results last night showed the Conservatives doing better than Labour. All seemed set for another year of Gary Porter leading the LGA.

Cllr Porter – a rare politician, noticeable for his plain speaking – has won plaudits for his honesty and, should his term of office come to an end, he may well leave us with as many memorable quotes as his predecessors managed since the LGA came into being. This is no disrespect to the LGA’s former chairs, more a compliment to Cllr Porter’s outspokenness. His putting the District Councils Network “on the naughty step” for arguing its members should retain their current portion of business rates will live long in the memory.

Cllr Porter’s demise has not been caused by the electorate turning against the Tories – the parties have at the time of writing lost an almost identical (but fairly negligible) number of seats – but the arithmetic turning against them.

The earthquake has been the result of Sheffield City Council unexpectedly deciding to re-join the LGA, just before the deadline to do so last night. With the LGA’s power balance determined by the number of councillors each party holds and the population they serve, the readmission of a city with a population in excess of half a million people could be crucial.

Sheffield had previously been one of a small number of councils, including Barnet, Wandsworth and Bromley LBCs, which decided against LGA membership. Its decision to re-join the association shortly before a final deadline of 10pm seemed to catch most off guard.

The complex calculations that determine who wins LGA control have yet to be determined but Cllr Porter thought Sheffield would be the deciding factor. He told LGC’s David Paine: “I will be surprised if the LGA is still Conservative controlled by the time the final count is done.”

He may also consider it unfortunate that the remaining councils which are not LGA members are Conservative strongholds. None of the three Tory-dominated London boroughs had the political cunning – or the financial commitment – to opt to pay to join the LGA at the last minute. Even if they decide to join today, their membership will not be considered in the calculations until after next year’s election.

In the past 24 hours, announcements that have been timed to coincide with the polls have proved more significant than the polls themselves.

Of the 124 councils with elections, just four have so far changed political control.

But we have seen a new frontrunner emerge in the race to be Greater Manchester’s elected mayor in the form of Andy Burnham. The shadow home secretary let it be known that he was considering swapping national politics for local politics at 10pm, as the polls were closing.

While his move is being analysed by the national media for indicating frontbench despair with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, it also signifies a sea change: suddenly local politics offer prominent politicians an alternative career path to Westminster.

Meanwhile, this afternoon, it emerged that the government is to U-turn on its plan to force all schools to become academies. Many councils feared the move would result in them being unable to meet their duty to ensure all children had a school place.

This is one set of elections in which the burying of bad news (Mr Burnham’s possible departure from the frontbench is clearly bad for Mr Corbyn and the announcement had to be timed to minimise the damage) and political opportunism has triumphed over the ballot box.

Should Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes emerge as the new Labour LGA chair he will be hoping that Barnet, Bromley or Wandsworth do not attempt the same trick as Sheffield in a year’s time.

Gary Porter wants to be a unifying force in local government

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online 

LGA cannot afford to sit on the fence over distribution of funding

25 June, 2015 | By Sarah Calkin

The incoming chair of the Local Government Association has pledged to avoid sitting “on the fence”, despite having to represent the interests of members from across the political spectrum

Gary Porter (Con) told LGC he would find ways for the association to present a united front on difficult issues, such as how funding should be distributed across local government.

Under the current finance regime, councils in the most deprived areas have suffered some of the largest cuts compared with authorities in relatively wealth areas.  “If anything happens in this year it won’t be because we’ve got splinters,” he said. “We cannot afford to sit on the fence because then we’ll have the whole world designed against us.”

Asked whether the LGA would advocate a return to a means of funding distribution which was more based on need, Cllr Porter said it was not the only valid way of distributing funding.  The funding regime should, however, become “more sophisticated”.  “Needs based on poverty alone generally miss some parts of the country where there is real poverty masked by a general economic wellbeing,” he said.

He added that Labour councils should be confident he would represent their interests as he was not “a tribal politician”.  “In some of the things I do I’m probably more left wing than some of the Labour councils: I bought the dustbins back in-house, grounds maintenance back in-house, kept my council houses.”

South Holland to benefit from working with the big boys?

Clearly, the landscape for local government will continue to be very uncertain, no matter what combination of political parties make up the next government.  Much as I would hope to see certainty and a Conservative majority returned, the British public seem so confused by what’s being offered to them and have such a short memory when it comes to the damage done by Labour whilst in power, that anything could happen.

It’s worth remembering that Labour didn’t just drain the national bank account dry and borrow billions of pounds on our behalf,  they also spent their time in office, unravelling much of what we consider to be the British way of life.  As well as liberalising the gambling industry, that now sees us suffer non-stop bingo, casino and betting adverts on the television, it was Labour that liberalised the licensing laws, leading to the town centre, drink sodden no- go areas, our police have to combat every weekend.

Labour also failed to take up the option of limiting access to the UK, from countries joining the EU, claiming that only 20,000 would come, when in fact 1 million did, and then dismantled our boarder controls, because they would now no longer be needed.  There’s a whole swath of badly drafted, back of a fag-packet policy, dreamt up by Tony Blair and his sofa cabinet, that we are still suffering the consequences of, yet some 30%+ of the British public remain willing to forgive and forget.  Come on Labour supporters, even if you can’t bring yourselves to vote Conservative, don’t let Labour and the two Eds back in so that can screw things up all over again, vote LibDem, or the Greens, they’re both pretty harmless in small numbers.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online.

Proposal for Peterborough based combined authority 22 April, 2015 | By Mark Smulia

 The leader of the Local Government Association’s Conservative group is backing a proposed combined authority that could stretch across four counties and two unitaries.  Gary Porter is also leader of South Holland DC where the local Conservative party election manifesto said the council would work with “new partners from Peterborough, Cambridge, Leicestershire, Norfolk and Lincolnshire to create a combined authority”.
This would seek to improve local transport, increase economic development and drive regeneration, the proposal added.  Cllr Porter told LGC: “It would not cover all the counties mentioned just the economic area with Peterborough at its centre.  “We’ve had talks among leaders and chief executives are working on ideas to go to a roundtable discussion after the elections, but I can’t say now who would be in and out.”
A South Holland council report last month said that councils potentially interested in a combined authority were Fenland DC, Peterborough City Council, Kings Lynn & West Norfolk BC, Rutland CC and South Kesteven DC and that Boston BC formed part of a ‘functioning economic area’.  Peterborough leader Marco Cereste (Con) told LGC the idea was “most definitely something we’re exploring”.
Chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has previously mooted a ‘Greater Cambridgeshire’ combined authority including Peterborough and Cambridgeshire CC. The two authorities are currently piloting a scheme allowing them to retain 100% of business rates growth.  Cllr Cereste said he did not see “any conflict between what Gary and I are doing and our work with Cambridgeshire”.  “If that works it could be extended across any new structure that is created,” he added.  “No matter who wins the election local authorities are going to have to look at new things as times will still be difficult.”
But Boston leader Peter Bedford (Con) said: “Boston hopes to end up in whatever arrangement the [Lincolnshire] county council does.”  Asked about the idea promoted by South Holland, he said: “That is Gary’s thinking, but ours is to be with Lincolnshire. We’re 35 miles from Lincoln and from Peterborough and we are a rural area.”
South Holland’s initiative is a further attempt to solve the vexed question of how to create combined authorities in East Anglia.  The council voted last month to join the Greater Cambridgeshire Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership in addition to its membership of the Greater Lincolnshire LEP.

Kings Lynn & West Norfolk leader Nick Daubeny (Con) last week said he’d spoken “in general terms” to Norfolk councils, Peterborough and Fenland about the combined authority idea, while South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller (Con) predicted councils would “cluster round Norwich, Ipswich, Peterborough and Cambridge”.

Cambridgeshire CC leader Steve Count said: “There are a lot of different ideas around at the moment and its right everyone puts theirs forward and see where we get to.”  Rutland leader Roger Begy (Con) said: “The council like many others is considering a number of possible options.”

The ‘spending power’ that’s no power at all

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
Home News Finance Comment and analysis

The DCLG’s spending claims exemplify the culture
that has eroded public trust – 21 January, 2015 | By Tony Travers

The stand-off between central and local government over the scale of budget reductions in 2015-16 is further evidence of Department for Communities & Local Government ministers’ extraordinary world view.

Faced with cuts in cash spending every year, the department has resorted to epic creativity in its attempt to show council spending rising. How is it possible to show local authority spending going up when it is going down?

First, the government makes many of its comparisons on the basis not of the ‘spending power’ definition used for annual funding settlements but of ‘net revenue expenditure’, which helpfully includes a number of items such as ‘mandatory housing benefits’ where councils are merely acting as agents for Whitehall transfer payments. Housing benefit payments, all of which are sanctioned by central government regulations, have risen by a remarkable £3.7bn since 2009-10.

Second, ministers use a definition of spending which excludes some local/central service transfers but includes others. Schools’ funding is carefully removed from comparisons because the move of institutions into academy status reduces annual council spending.

On the other hand public health, which was passed to local government in 2013, is added in because it creates a helpful £2.5bn step-up in expenditure.

Treasury-sanctioned housing benefit cost increases and public health have, together, added £6.2bn to ‘council spending’ since 2009-10. And, bingo, this juicy sum just outweighs the cuts councils have had to make to the budgets they directly control.

Latterly, it has been decided to add part of the better care fund (worth £3.8bn) into council spending power for 2015-16, even though the money is also counted as NHS expenditure. This spectacular distortion is the root of the ‘1.8% vs 6% cuts’ debate which surrounded the recent local government spending settlement.

Using this method of boosting council spending, it would be possible notionally to add all health resources into council spending without reducing the NHS budget line by a penny.

Reason is dying. But it would be naïve of national politicians to imagine the creativity and double-counting explored above will disguise the true impacts of what has happened. Treating the electorate in this way is one of the destructive roots of the decline in trust in Westminster politics.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

DCLG is local government’s version of Bird Flu

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
NAO report proves it’s time to axe the DCLG
19 November, 2014 | By Nick Golding

The National Audit Office’s report into the financial sustainability of local authorities is a suitably damning epitaph for the Department for Communities & Local Government’s stewardship of council finances this parliament.

It is packed full of nuggets which leave one questioning the competence of the DCLG to oversee a funding system which helps determine whether the vulnerable young and old receive adequate care, the economies of towns and cities grow and hundreds of thousands of local government workers receive fair reward for difficult jobs.

The DCLG “does not have an accurate measure of the cumulative financial challenge facing local authorities,” Sue Higgins, the NAO’s executive leader of local services, says.

It “does not have an accurate measure of the cumulative financial challenge facing local authorities” and is “unsighted” on the extent to which councils might financially fail.

The time has come to abolish the DCLG and invest the savings in efficient local services
The list of charges levied at the DCLG would be astonishing had the last four-and-a-half years not happened. As it is, councils are all too used to hearing Eric Pickles blustering on about flags or complaining about “spy cars” and avoiding proper debate about the central funding decisions which meant they were being forced into a position where they had to deny older people care or close flagship facilities.

Now we get confirmation that the department has not even had the curiosity to analyse the impact of a radical set of policies.

While the NAO says councils will see a 25% real-terms cut to their total income between 2010 and 2016, the DCLG has not even been able to produce a figure for spending pressure to be meaningfully calculated over the course of the parliament. Metropolitan authorities in particular are quaking under the burden of the cuts they are being forced to make and the DCLG’s response consists of little more than burying its head in the sand.

This is not to say that it is wrong to seek to balance the books. The deficit will hamper future generations and has to be tackled. It is right that the public sector should become more efficient and councils’ performance at retaining frontline services and rooting out unnecessary expenditure has been truly commendable.

However, we have long seen the DCLG’s political leadership fail to engage in a meaningful debate about where the burden of cuts is targeted. There has been no attempt to stand up for local services or to query whether certain parts of the country, namely the north, are being disproportionately affected.

If the department which is supposed to be local government’s gateway to the rest of Whitehall cannot successfully undertake its responsibilities then it should be axed.

We all too regularly see interaction with the Treasury or Department for Business, Innovation & Skills prove more fruitful for councils than that with the DCLG and it was no surprise when Greater Manchester’s mayoral deal was hatched with the Treasury, not Eric Pickles’ department. The time has come to abolish the DCLG and invest the savings in efficient local services.

Exorbitant spending on Overseas Aid hasn’t made us any safer

One of the reasons given by David Cameron for his year on year increases in the Overseas Development budget since 2010 – well beyond that of any other European country – is that it will make our country a safer place, by helping those in foreign countries, improve their lot and become less radicalized by political extremists.  It has in fact, done nothing of the sort and will never do so, as long as we give the extremists reason, in their eyes, to see our country as their enemy and oppressor.

Some might suggest that our history as a colonial power, exploring and exploiting the world over many centuries,  had already done the damage, but I don’t believe that, given that many of our previous colonial conquests, remain members of the Commonwealth.  What has done the real damage and made us especially vulnerable, is our much cherished special relationship with the USA and our willingness to march shoulder to shoulder with them, into recent middle eastern conflicts.

Whilst successive Westminster leaders of all political persuasions, have viewed this relationship as the Holy Grail of international politics, giving the UK much great influence and kudos than it might otherwise have, I see it more as putting a target on the backs of every British citizen living and working in some of the most volatile areas of Africa and the Middle East.

Multiculturalism, a legacy of the Blair years, but again eagerly pursued by virtually all administrations, has opened our doors and left us vulnerable within our own boarders, something the Americans have bent over backwards to eliminate, post September 2001.  Live and let live, when those you are letting live in their own extremist ways – Sharia law is a very good example of this, along with female genital mutilation, is an irresponsible and ultimately dangerous political doctrine to pursue.

The upshot of this government’s single minder pursuit of international glory, often described as, ‘punching above our weight’ – a rather unfortunate term to use when you are supposedly trying to be everybody’s friend – is that an increase in spending in one area, has to be matched by a decrease elsewhere.  This applies even more so, when you are in the middle of a global financial crisis, but still determined to spend, spend, spend!  Which brings me to my point and the reason I have borrowed the article below.

Before anybody starts telling me that, despite all the cuts in local government funding, taxpayers haven’t noticed any reduction in services, I’d like to put that in some context.

Yes, most, if not all the essential services have been maintained to a good standard and residents won’t have seen their bins left un-emptied, streets knee deep in litter, or grass too long see over, let alone walk through.  Council houses are still being allocated and maintained and benefits are still being paid out on time.

However, what is suffering and will be cut even further in years to come, are those things we call discretionary – the things councils do because they believe their residents would like that service to be provided, even though the law doesn’t require it.  Leisure centres, youth clubs, play equipment, sports pitches, libraries, public toilets and maybe even usable, or at least affordable, burial grounds, could all disappear from localities, as cuts in local government funding continue for years to come.  Remember, all this is being done under the banner of deficit reduction, whilst the overseas aid budget continues to grow and grow, year on year.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle – 23 August 2014

Author – Tony Travers, director. Greater London Group, London School of Economics

The government will soon be spending twice as much on international development as councils can on highways

Under cover of mid-summer, the government has published two sets of figures about public expenditure.

The Department for Communities and Local Government revealed local authority revenue spending and income totals for 2014-15, while at the start of this month the Treasury belatedly released the annual Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses volume. Together these publications show how the years of austerity have affected individual services.

Although some parts of central government, notably the Home Office, defence and transport, have seen reductions of 100/o or more in their cash budgets, all the biggest programmes have been protected.  Council spending, by contrast, has been forced down at a remarkable pace.  The UK government will soon be spending twice as much on international development as English councils can afford to spend on highways and transport. Housing, roads, environment and planning have seen their cash expenditure fall by almost 30% in four years. In real terms, the cut is over 40%.

Council productivity increases must be among the greatest ever achieved by the public sector.  Planners appear to be processing as many applications in 2014 as in 2010 with barely half the resources. [What the planners are probably doing, is giving up the fight to maintain standards, given that the NPPF was written by developers, for developers and just passing applications to meet the targets set by Whitehall]. 

The government and opposition have no choice but to find additional money for the NHS: fear of public opinion will open the Treasury’s vaults. Pensions, as the biggest part of social security, are triple-locked into inflationary increases. Schools cannot be denied cash.

By 2020, many council spending programmes will have been halved within a decade.

 

CENTRAL AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT SPENDING CHANGES

  2010-11  £millions 2014-15  £millions Change %
Local government
Housing

2,733

1,945

-28.8

Highways & transport

6,661

4,814

-27.8

Environment, planning, culture

10,959

9,029

-17.6

Social care

20,851

22,090

+5.9

Central government
International development

5,930

7,870

+32.7

Social security

164,512

184,380

+12.8

NHS

97,469 109,650

+12.5

Education

50,387 54,500

+8.2

Local government – something we used to have in the UK?

I am sure we would all agree with Cllr Sir Merrick Cockell, LGA Chairman, when he said last week:

“While this Budget has not brought further cuts for local government, it has not changed the fact that the next two years will be the toughest yet for people who use and rely upon the services which councils provide. The black hole in funding for local bus services, a £10.5 billion backlog in road repairs and continuing uncertainty over funding for much-needed reforms of the adult social care system have yet to be properly addressed.”

By next year, central government funding for councils will have been cut by 40 per cent during this Parliament.
If we are to avoid an upturn in the economy coinciding with a decline in public services, we need nothing less than a fundamental reform of the way the public sector works and an honest reappraisal of how public services are provided and paid for in post-austerity Britain.
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Add to all of this, the recent announcement that the government is looking at centralising children services in England, combined with the push for academy schools, both services currently delivered by county councils, and you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s a hidden ‘European’ agenda in play here.
The last labour government made an abortive attempt to up the game of parish councils, encouraging them to takeover the delivery of services that were being carried by district councils. As well as leading to the demise of two tier government in shire areas, the idea seemed to be about refocusing local people on to the parochial (very local) and away from greater than local issues, thereby strengthening the position of the then emerging regional government bodies.
The current government seems to be hell bent on a similar goal of undermining, or even eliminating local government at the district level and possibly county level, but without anything being put in place between the very local (parish) and national levels.
One can only suggest that the way things are done in many European countries, with village and town councils run by some form of mayor and looking after the basics, a regional government body at the next level and everything else controlled by the national government, is what all our MPs want, no matter what party they represent.