MPs and their Parties, don’t care about councillors

Another set of local elections out of the way and enough statistics to keep the pundits going until the General Election in May 2015. Who won, who lost and more importantly, who cares?

Obviously all those who actually gained, or lost a council seat, are very interested. Likewise, the remaining councillors, who may now find themselves in the controlling group, or now members of the opposition on their council.

However, beyond the councillors themselves and maybe to a lesser extent, the council officers who now have to deal with a new administration, neither the electorate and certainly not those in Westminster, will give a second thought to those affected.

Those fighting to either maintain control of Westminster, or wrestle control away from those in power, expend a lot of time talking about the results of local elections, when it suits them. Beyond the election period and it’s immediate aftermath, those of us in local government, are more likely to be viewed as an annoyance, rather than the backbone of public services and a conduit of how the public feels about government.

If you question this view, then why do all the main parties still insist on seeing the outcomes of local government elections, as no more than a protest vote and not a valid indication of what will happen at a general election?

Treasury rent control threatens house building

Yet another way for this government to milk the local government cash cow.

Copied from LGC online
22 August 2013 | By Keith Cooper

Some of the most ambitious council housing building programmes for decades have been put into jeopardy by the surprise Treasury plan to seize control of local authority rent levels.

Officials have been warned by the Chartered Institute of Housing that the shake-up of ‘social rent’ policy unveiled during the spending period announcement will pull £1.2bn out of council housing budgets over the next decade.

The policy will cut short an arrangement that allowed councils to align rents with those charged by housing associations and undermines key assumptions in their 30-year housing budget plans.

LGC understands ministers are preparing to take a hard line on enforcing the rent policy as the Treasury is concerned that councils will refuse to comply. This includes the option of central regulation of council rents for the refuseniks.

CIH analysis predicts that the authority hardest hit by the policy will see £300m stripped out of its housing revenue account, a budget councils have only controlled since April last year. Until then the HRA had been in the Treasury’s hands.

Croydon LBC, which is hoping to build almost 2,000 homes a year, has calculated that the changes could suck £254.8m out of its HRA. Such a loss would force it to “fundamentally review” its business plan, according to Richard Simpson, its director of finance and assets.

Camden LBC has warned that the new policy could substantially heighten the risk of its 1,100 house building programme. Its £400m plan to refurbish existing stock might also have to be put back, a spokeswoman said. Investment decisions would become “more difficult and risky”, she added. “The potential loss of revenue has been estimated at £75m over a 10 year period.”

The threat of centrally imposed rent controls comes at time when councils have just begun gearing up for large-scale house building schemes.

Camden and Croydon’s house building plans would dwarf the tiny numbers of new local authority homes built during the past two decades.

Reliable evidence of the new rent policy’s impact has only just emerged, following detailed analysis of the proposals by the Chartered Institute of Housing and consultancy Sector.

Abigail Davies, assistant director of policy and practice at the institute, said the changes would over 10 years cost around 125 authorities £1.2bn in ‘net present value’.

This takes into account economic projections and is understood to be the most accurate representation of the impact to date.

The hardest hit authorities are in London and the southeast, with around 24 authorities losing more than £10m each, according to the CIH. “There are some councils which will be very severely affected,” Ms Davies said.

Sector’s analysis of the government’s new ‘rent guarantee’ suggests that it could see £250m pulled out of many councils’ housing budgets.

The guarantee expects all social landlords to increase rents by the consumer price index +1% for 10 years from 2015-16. Until now, councils assumed rents would rise by the retail price index +0.5% for three decades, as government policy papers had indicated.

Ian Green, a manager at Sector, said it was acting for several concerned councils.

“The worry for local authorities is that at the end of 10 years, the government will change it to CPI only,” he added. “If they do that, it will have a substantial impact.”

Ms Davies urged ministers not to undermine council housing investment so soon after local authorities had regained control of their budgets.

A spokeswoman for the DCLG described the new rent policy as a “fair deal for tenants and landlords”.

Explainer
The Treasury’s new social rent policy has two key elements. The first cuts short ‘rent convergence policy’ one year early. Introduced by the previous Labour administration, this had allowed councils to bring their rent levels into line with those of highercost housing associations. Without the extra year, most authorities will be left out of pocket.

The second change is a new ‘rent formula’ which states that social rents should increase by CPI +1% for 10 years from 2015-16. Both policies could save the exchequer £1bn between 2015-16 and 2017-18, a sum which depends on whether councils will toe the policy line.

“The main uncertainty [about the savings] is the behavioural response from local authority landlords,” Treasury documents say. The DCLG is therefore considering rent regulation.

Sunday Telegraph – check the facts please

I was disappointed and surprised to see a half page spread, promoted by a reporter written piece on another page, in the Sunday Telegraph Business section, making an unsubstantiated claim on car parking charges and containing inaccurate information regarding business rates.

The first of the claims made by Lee Manning, a top gun in the administrator business, is that councils are killing the high street through excessive car parking charges. The article, repeated at the bottom of this page, clearly suggests otherwise.

The mis-information is even more surprising, given that this man is supposedly an expert in closing down businesses that are in financial trouble. One of the core costs to any business is the business rates. Yet Mr Manning seems to be unaware that the level of business rates is determined by central government and only collected on behalf of central government by local government. The reporter written piece, quotes Mr Manning as suggesting that councils don’t care if shops close down because, “…landlords have to pay the councils the rates for the property. This means there is little or no financial impact on authorities if retailers go bust”.

Report finds parking charges are not responsible for decline of high streets

There is no conclusive evidence that parking tariffs are influencing the decline of high streets or town centres, according to a new report.
The report, entitled ‘Re-think! Parking on the high street’, finds there is no clear relationship between parking charges and the amenities on offer in an area. However, it did conclude that further research is required to ensure parking provision is planned effectively.
Research found that in 2012, 94% of all parking acts were free. Of the remaining 6%, over 82% cost less than £3 and 50% cost less that £1.
The report has been produced by the Association of Town & City Management (ATCM), the British Parking Association (BPA), Springboard Research Ltd and Parking Data & Research International (PDRI).
BPA director of policy and public affairs, Kelvin Reynolds, said: ‘This report shows the need for parking to be managed intelligently to work as intended, sometimes requiring effective management. All of this costs money and therefore, we believe that so called ‘free parking’ is not viable.’
The report also highlighted that it is unlawful for local authorities to generate income as an objective of parking management, and any surplus made is ring-fenced by law.

Tory leaders warn PM of ‘fractious’ relationship

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
23 January, 2013 | By Ruth Keeling

Conservative council leaders have written to the prime minster warning that a “retrograde tendency towards greater centralism” and “constant criticisms” by ministers have left local activists “angry” and possibly unwilling to help the party win the next general election.

More than 30 county and unitary leaders have warned David Cameron of an “unhelpfully fractious relationship” between the local and central arms of the party and called for a “new start” to ensure the party does not lose in 2015.

The letter, marked “private and confidential” but seen by LGC, lists a range of issues which have angered Conservative councillors including the bypassing of councils in favour of local enterprise partnerships, constraints on council tax powers as well as proposals that “volunteer” councillors should not receive a pension.

“It is not only the substance of such policy but also the nature and tone of constant criticisms of their work by Conservative ministers which is most worrying,” the letter said.

“We are open to genuine feedback where it can be evidenced that we have fallen short in some way. Our issue is with ill informed and anecdote based general criticism and sometimes highly inaccurate personal attacks.”

The letter makes prominent mention of local government minister Brandon Lewis and Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps’ comments that councillors were volunteers, questioning their eligibility for pensions and larger allowances, but also contains a list of policies and statements from ministers covering areas such as education, business and media.

Local government was blamed for a number of problems, from poor education standards to a lack of house building, with “little or no evidence”, the letter said. In one example, the letter said local government had been blamed for the slow roll out of high speed broadband at a time when councils were “immensely frustrated by some six months of delay in [the Department for Culture, Media & Sport] in obtaining EU state aid clearance”. However, this aspect of the delay was “never mentioned”, the letter said.

So many policies appear at stark variance to our party’s commitment to localism
The creation of the Education Funding Agency, plans to bypass local planning authorities and restrictions on council tax increases above 2% were all given as examples of where the government’s policies appeared to be in “stark variance to our party’s commitment to localism”.

County and unitary leaders also complained they were being bypassed in the government’s growth agenda as the government focused on local enterprise partnerships, City Deals and planning, the latter power held by districts in two-tier areas.

“Many councils feel increasingly bypassed when responsibilities and funding is proposed to be diverted to still inexperienced and poorly resourced Local Enterprise Partnerships for roles that councils currently perform well,” the letter said.

It is unfortunate to read of LGA leaders referred to in the press in pejorative terms by a cabinet member
The Conservative signatories to the letter said they had written to the prime minister because their concerns “are not solely with one department”, but they also appeared to allude to communities secretary Eric Pickles’ occasionally dismissive treatment of local government concerns.

“We have been raising these concerns for some time via our senior Conservative Party representatives on the LGA. It is therefore unfortunate to read of them referred to in the press in pejorative terms by a cabinet member.”

In a recent interview with House magazine Mr Pickles said the LGA was “the voice of the officer class with the odd politician thrown in as a hostage handcuffed to the radiator and they occasionally speak”.

The Conservative party has recently made some changes in a bid to improve the representation of Conservative councillor views in its structures with the appointment of former local government minister Bob Neill in a new post of party vice chairman with special responsibility for local government.

A no to elected mayors brings cold comfort

This paragraph, lifted from one of Andrew Leighton’s latests blog entries, should be required reading for all of us who are privileged to hold the title, ‘councillor’.

‘Councillors and Council leaders should not take this as a vote of confidence. This was a profoundly anti-politics vote with many anti-politicians sitting at home. If the referendum had been to exile all local cllrs to Siberia a resounding yes vote would have been likely.’

http://andrewlainton.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/will-no-votes-on-elected-mayors-sink-greg-clarks-promotion-as-locals-vote-against-localist-mayors/

Another step towards the past or the USA?

“@TweetyHall: “The balance of power has shifted in your councils away from your officials to you” – @ericpickles to local councillor’s at #cca12”

I’ve lifted this from Twitter, not just because it’s yet another piece of Pickles tripe, but also because demonstrates the dangerous illusion that Pickles is selling to elected members – they can do the job with out the officers. We’ve seen this start with the scrapping of chief executive posts by some councils and the thinning out of senior management posts in many others.

I’m not suggesting that local government hasn’t become top heavy and bloated and that the taxpayer is being over-charged through their council tax to pay for this. However, much of this bloatation (I’ve just invented that word) was caused by the very same organisation now criticising it – central government. The blunt instrument being used to redress the balance, massive cuts in the central grant, is encouraging the culling of officers and the apparent inflation of members’ egos.

Unfortunately, this situation has been forced on local government and members will never have the remotest chance to grow in to their new roles ( if that was ever possible). This will probably play out just as things did in the 1980s, when councils such as Liverpool and it’s then leader Derek Hatton, gave Margaret Thatcher the excuse to centralise much of local government’s powers.

It’s difficult not to feel that when people look back in another 15 or 20 years, they won’t see this as just a repeat of previous local government history and that nothing will have changed. Of course the alternative is, that we have become America!

Police will be forced to act if neighbours complain

RESIDENTS are to be given the power to force police to tackle anti-social behaviour and end the “horror stories” of communities blighted by nuisance neighbours, the Home Secretary will say today.
Theresa May will say that if five households complain about a repeated nuisance, the police and local authorities will be under a duty to investigate and devise a plan of action within a fortnight.

By Tom Whitehead Daily Telegraph 30 Jan 12

Whilst I applaud any proposal to require police and councils to take more seriously the issue of anti-social behaviour, there is a glaring loophole in these proposals. Not for the first time, a well meaning, but urban centric policy has completely ignored the rural dimension. Whilst it might be a no-brainer that a bunch of persistent yobs, will upset at least five separate households in a residential area, the same cannot be said for thousands of rural households. Drive around anywhere outside of our main towns and villages and you will see isolated homes, remote from any neighbour, let alone four others.

This new policy is very welcome, but like so many government policies in recent years, needs to be given far more thought and go through the apparently now forgotten process called ‘rural proofing’. The alternative, is numerous rural houses and hamlets of less that five houses, left to the mercies of the yobs driven out of urban areas by this new policy.