Localism was always a con game

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Localism was nothing more than a sound bite, created for the benefit of the media. It was also designed to con an increasingly unhappy and non-voting public, in to thinking that things were going to change for the better, when it came to local decision making.

There can be little doubt that the public have now realised that they’ve been conned, but worryingly, they don’t actually seem to care that much. Using local elections, as a way of sending a message to the government of the day, is something of a tradition in this country and may well indicate the true feelings of the majority of people when it come to local government in general and their local councils in particular.

Perhaps it’s time for political parties to bow out of any further involvement in local government. Why not require all councils to run elections without any party political logos or emblems on the ballot papers, as in the case of parish councils?

Once elected, councillors would be required to form alliances in order to form an administration. Without party politics in the mix, the public would be required to focus on the performance of the people in charge and not the political party they belong to. This isn’t a plea for proportional representation by the way, as I don’t support that, given it’s continued linkage with Party based politics.

Those who chose to form alliances and work together,min order to get each other elected and subsequently form an administration, would still be elected on their own merit and the reputation they had gained with the local electorate, not just the fact that they belonged to a particular political party, that a particular element of the electorate supports come what may. It may be something of an exaggeration, but it is suggested that some dyed in the wool voters, would vote for a gate post as long as it had their Party’s emblem on it!

An added bonus from such a system, would be the dismantling of the political party associations. These tend to be made up of those who have to be in them by default, because they are standing for election under that particular party emblem. This requirement gives some prospective parliamentary candidates a standing workforce (in theory at least), that other, non-party political candidates, don’t enjoy. Breaking the link between MPs and local government, would probably be good for the democratic process in more way than we can imagine!

Now to the point of this post and an LGC comment that partially echoes a previous posting of mine.

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Why Labour should not support council tax referendums
Don’t sacrifice localism on the altar of spending restraint
20 March 2014 | By Nick Golding

So who doesn’t expect Ukip to be the big winner of the local government elections, which are being held on the same day as their European counterparts?

One of the main reasons that a party set up to oppose the European Union will win seats on numerous councils is that the electorate is indifferent to voting for candidates representing regular parties who may have local policies but lack the ability to implement them.

Central government imposes cuts on councils without regard to local need and councillors have seen their powers over issues such as planning and education whittled away to the point of impotence. With representative democracy looking this unhealthy, one can understand someone’s rationale for using the local elections to make a bold statement about an issue largely unrelated to local politics or indeed not voting at all.

So the question arises of how local democracy can be reinvigorated. It is clearly an issue shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn has given much contemplation.

In his LGC interview this week, Mr Benn proposes the extension of city deals to counties, ensuring power is devolved in more places, making it more worthwhile to vote in them. The same is true of his promise that councils will get a significant role in commissioning back-to-work schemes.

However, Mr Benn says Labour is likely to retain council tax referendums, forcing locally elected politicians to navigate a prohibitively expensive and risky hurdle if they seek to safeguard services by raising bills above an arbitrary limit imposed from afar by a minister. To date no council has successfully pursued this path.

Mr Benn says the impetus to keep bills low brought about by the referendum policy will help people suffering due to the “cost of living crisis”. While it is true that council tax bills cost people dear, so too do service cuts that have had their worst impact on society’s most vulnerable. And so do opportunities to drive growth that are missed because councils lack the resources to lead on projects to create jobs.

Eric Pickles regards the council tax referendum as a device to secure democracy. Well, if that is true, will the government commit to holding polls every time a decision is required on the expenditure it controls? More likely, ministers will argue their government is the democratic representative of the people, entrusted to make tough decisions on their behalf. The same argument applies to local government.

Councillors should take decisions on local public expenditure, facing grief at the ballot box if they prove unpopular. Referendums only muddy the waters of local democracy, introducing a semblance of people power which hinders representative democracy. The fact that they are only applicable to a minute portion of public expenditure – one of the few slithers of spending not centrally controlled – makes them a democratic illusion.

The council tax referendum is a bellwether issue when it comes to local democracy. In this case Labour has sacrificed localism on the altar of spending restraint.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

It’s called throwing the baby out with the bath water

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I can’t believe that these councillors can be so naïve as to think they would gain support from the planning puppet master, Nick Boles. How can they not realise that the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) is simply doing what it is told by DCLG and it’s current incumbents, Eric Pickles and the hyperactive Nick Boles? They in turn, are of course under the thumb of George Osborne, who seems to believe that building hundreds of thousands of houses,min a short space of time, will be the saviour of the UK economy.
If you want to improve things in planning terms, don’t throw out what’s been proven to work over many years, instead, get rid of the ‘external elements’ that are undermining it.

PINS fulfils a vital role, by addressing the sometimes aberrant behaviour of some planning departments and their associated planning committees. How else would an applicant, with a perfectly reasonable planning proposal, gain redress against a council that had refused that application, despite it being in compliance with both local and national planning policies?

Until you can be sure that elected members will always behave in a totally professional and unbiased manner, when considering an application and that planning officers will get it right every time, PINS will continue to be an essential element of the planning system.

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Leader urges Planning Inspectorate abolition
12 March, 2014 | By Mark Smulian

A council leader has called for abolition of the Planning Inspectorate after being sent a “bitterly disappointing” letter by planning minister Nick Boles.

A delegation of North Devon DC councillors (pictured) led by local MP Sir Nick Harvey (Lib Dem) handed in a letter at 10 Downing Street and met Mr Boles to highlight problems created by government planning policy on their community.

Council leader Brian Greenslade (Lib Dem) said that while the minister had been encouraging when they met his follow-up letter was short, unhelpful and evasive.

“I think he was got at by civil servants after our meeting,” Cllr Greenslade said.

The council delegation, led by local MP Sir Nick Harvey (Lib Dem), raised concerns about the refusal of planning inspectors to count inactive sites with planning permission towards councils’ required five-year land supply for housebuilding, and inspectors’ habit of substituting their own decisions for those of councils.

North Devon also objected to proposals to deprive councils of the New Homes Bonus where planning permission is given only after an appeal to inspectors.

“We were all bitterly disappointed with the short response from the planning minister, who avoided all of our main points, despite making positive comments to our councillors at the time of the meeting,” Cllr Greenslade said.

He added: “We believe that the localism agenda and the restoration of democracy to planning will be greatly enhanced if Mr Pickles were to follow the example he set when he scrapped the Audit Commission by also scrapping the Planning Inspectorate.

“I understand this is a course of action favoured by a number of Conservative MPs.”

Is LGA whistling in the wind, because it’s a ‘European’ report?

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LGA demands more power for England
7 March, 2014 | By Marino Donati

The LGA is calling for greater devolution of powers to English councils after a European report concluded that local authorities in Wales and Scotland were better off.

The report from the Council of Europe, Local and Regional Democracy in the United Kingdom, expressed concern about “the financial resources of local authorities, their limited taxing powers and their dependence on government grants”.

It concluded: “Despite significant cuts, in Wales and Scotland local authorities are (still) better off financially than their English counterparts, but lacking diversity of local finances is a concern also there.”

The report said that “ambiguities” around the lack of recognition of the right to local self-government in the law beyond the general powers granted by the Localism Act 2011, also needed to be addressed.

It recommended the UK government reduce the financial burden on local authorities from budget cuts. It also called for better consultation arrangements for local government for “taking into account the necessity or opportunity for local authorities to consult their local population”.

LGA chairman Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) said that English councils were being “short changed” and called for the current model for the financing and running of local government to change.

He said: “Devolution of decision-making and tax-raising powers to local areas is needed to help save money and improve services and English communities need to be given the same significant say over everything from health services to public transport as they do across the border in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“Our European counterparts also identified the urgent need for a fair and equitable distribution of public money across the United Kingdom, The 34-year-old Barnett Formula is short changing English communities by as much as £4.1bn a year and a needs-based model is needed for a fairer deal.”

The report also raised concern about councils’ ability to meet international obligations. It said: “A fundamental question in relation to Article 9 of the Charter [European Charter of Local Self-Government] is whether local government will have adequate (own) financial resources and whether these are commensurate with its functions.”

The Council of Europe regularly reports on the state of local and regional democracy in the EU’s member states. Its local government arm, the Congress, is responsible for the monitoring of local democracy in member states by assessing the application of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which was adopted in 1985 and ratified by the UK in 1998.

Responding to the report, local government minister Brandon Lewis said: “The coalition government has delivered a fair settlement to every part of the country – north and south, rural and urban, metropolitan and shire. We have given councils new financial flexibilities, such as the local retention of business rates and scrapped top-down interfering quangos.”

Another hidden tax on the council taxpayer is set to increase

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LGA calls on chancellor to freeze landfill tax
7 March, 2014 | By Chris Smith

The chancellor has been urged to freeze the landfill tax as part of this month’s budget by council leaders.

Ahead of George Osbourne’s keynote speech on 19 March, the LGA claimed landfill tax had achieved its purpose and warned any increase would punish hard-pressed families.

Mr Osborne was urged to keep landfill tax at its present rate of £72 per tonne and to redistribute revenue to local taxpayers.

The tax, paid by businesses, is set to increase to £80 per tonne in April and the money raised goes into central government funding.

The LGA warned the costs would be passed by on to residents and claimed each household would pay £30 towards landfill tax in 2014-15.

Mike Jones (Con), chair of the LGA’s environment and housing board, said: “Instead of using the receipts from the tax to boost recycling technologies and reward residents for the gains made in recycling levels, the Treasury has held on to receipts. We need a clear indication from the chancellor that this tax will be frozen at its present rate, with the money raised from it returned to taxpayers and invested in growth.”

The way forward, but is anybody listening?

It’s unfortunate that, even when there is agreement that unitary is the best and most cost effective way to provide local government service, politicians still waste time and energy protecting their individual power bases.
I’ve yet to fathom Eric Pickles’s reasoning for sticking his oar in as soon as he got in to office in 2010, and stopping those that were in train. Possibly pre-election whinging, from Conservative councillors in those areas, fearful that they would get the boot from the electorate, was the cause of this early interference, something that has continued at a pace.

Too much time and effort is wasted by politicians protecting their own interests under the pretence of championing the interests of those who elected them. The vast majority of taxpayers care little for which part of local government provides the services they need to access. What they do care about, is how much their council tax bill will be every April. Yet despite what should be blindingly obvious, lower tier politicians spend their trying to pass on the cost to the upper tier, or refusing to work with that upper tier, because they can nothing in it for them.

As far as the taxpayer is concerned, a saving in their council tax, is a saving in the council tax, no matter where it comes from. Put another way, if a district council works with their county council, to help that county council save money, then that is as much to the credit of those district councillors as it is the county councillors, if not more. Unfortunately many councillors at the district level can only see the numbers in their own budget and refuse to acknowledge any wider savings that are being made.

However, it’s not just a case of making everything unitary and all will be well in local government. I’ve no idea how well or badly local government is working within the East Riding of Yorkshire. However, given that it’s the largest unitary in England, is divided into 26 wards and has a total of 67 councillors (Lincolnshire County Council has 77 councillors, covering only county council services) it would be very interesting to know and I don’t mean just what the council and it’s politicians would like you to believe.

Would Lincolnshire work as one large unitary? Personally, I don’t believe that it would, but that’s just my opinion. I’m always willing to be persuaded differently based on evidence that unitary councils such as East Riding of Yorkshire Council is serving its rural council taxpayers well.

Copied from the Local Government Chronicle. From a series of articles written by a senior local government officer, who remains anonymous.

Inside Out: Unitary is strength
5 March, 2014

I have always believed unitary is strength when it comes to local government. I was really pleased when it was recently reported that Labour is looking to embrace it.

I was less pleased with the government’s response. They ‘played politics’ with it rather than responding to the issue.

Granted, the move to unitary councils has never been smooth.Councils disappear, people lose their power and influence, places can feel they lose their identity, and there are always transitional costs. However, the advantages when unitary government is established far outweigh the transitory downsides.

I have worked for a district that became a unitary council, a county unitary and a district unitary. One size does not fit all circumstances. It seems to be assumed these days that unitaries should always be based on counties. This is a disservice to the strength and professionalism of district councils and will be a barrier to change in some circumstances.

There are three secrets to make moving to unitary local government successful. First, the area covered needs to make sense to residents. My hometown was moved from Lancashire to Merseyside in 1974. I still address Christmas cards to my relatives using Lancashire, 40 years later. The boundaries of unitaries need to be determined locally.

Second, there needs to be strong national leadership. The whole of England needs to be covered by unitary government. Unless this is made clear, local vested interests will fight change and drive up costs.

Finally, it needs strong local leadership, seeking consensus on change and then managing the change well. There are savings and service improvements that can be unleashed by bringing together tiers of government, but they have to be realised. They don’t happen on their own.

Given the financial struggle matched with rising demand, no element of transformational change can be dismissed. My heart sinks when I think of yet more organisational change. But maybe it needs such a shake-up to unlock the other changes we need to embrace. Unitary is strength.

Labour has a double whammy in store for local government

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It seems that Labour is willing to throw local government in to further turmoil, should it regain power at the next general election. The Electoral Society has published a document written by a Labour lobby group, promoting proportional representation voting as the way to re-energise democracy in this country.

Labour is also revisiting the issue of two tier local government, something that will effect shire areas such as Lincolnshire. This would probably a good thing from the council taxpayers’ perspective, as it would remove some of the confusion and frustration they experience when dealing with two tier local government. However, it’s by no means clear that this is intended to make democracy more accessible and straightforward for the taxpayer, as opposed to just making it easier for Labour to gain power outside of their current urban strongholds.

Reading the document, it would appear that Labour are concerned about running out of the foot soldiers they need to get re-elected. As many of these foot soldiers come from those standing in local elections, the Party appears to have a cunning plan to create more Labour councillors (foot soldiers) across the country.

This sudden enthusiasm for PR could of course be intended as a sop to the Liberal Democrats, just in case Labour needs to go into coalition with them, to freeze out the Conservatives in 2015, if plan A, an outright majority, doesn’t come to pass.

Perhaps the Labour Party really does believe PR is the way forward and are seeking to collude with the LibDems to foist it on to the British public via the back door, or rather from the bottom up. Using local government as a guinea pig, they will impose it on to councils, already buckling under the weight of doing more than their bit to help reduce Labour’s deficit legacy. Looked at cynically, one could suggest that the extremely low turn out in local elections, makes councils an easy target for this experiment and that any outcry from existing councillors will gain little, if any, support from an apathetic public.

There are many reasons why we should be extremely wary of PR at the local government level. There are a plenty of examples of councils that are in a form of leadership limbo, due to being in no overall control, because no single group has the majority. Even when there is what might be called a controlling group there are examples of councils being controlled by single issue groups, rather then one with any particular political allegiance. Boston Borough Council had something called the Boston Bypass Party until 2011. In both cases, this effectively leaves a council with no political direction, or leadership and being run by its officers.

I would also suggest that PR will inevitably lead to the introduction of professional councillors. The PR system means that a councillor representing a particular minor group, gets allotted a seat in a division well away from where they are actually living. As such, they are likely to need a far greater level of administrative support and spend a much greater amount of time and effort dealing with issues. They will also claim a much higher level of expenses and ultimately, find themselves needing to become a ‘full time’ councillor.

The prospect is, that should Labour gain power, either totally, or in a coalition, all councils will become single tier across England. Additionally, in many areas the council will be in the political control of what is politely called, rainbow alliances, but could soon be more accurately be described as, ‘a herd of cats’.

http://m.youtube.com/watch?autoplay=1&v=Pk7yqlTMvp8

The Labour Party position on unitaries

A senior shadow minister has hinted that Labour would revive unitary local government reorganisation.

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie said in a speech to the Social Market Foundation thinktank that the government should work with councils that were already promoting unitary schemes, such as Leicestershire and Warwickshire.

“The previous Labour government helped local government to make efficiency savings. So we gave local authorities powers to merge and change their boundaries and in 2009 a series of local authority reorganisations brought together district and county councils and created new unitary bodies,” he said.

“Other changes in Devon, Exeter and Norfolk were in the pipeline but this government stopped those in their tracks and are continuing to resist local authorities’ proposals to unitaries.”

The earlier generation of county unitaries had delivered savings per head through efficiencies of £46 per person a year in Cornwall, £52 in Central Bedfordshire, £66 in Shropshire and £91 in Northumberland, Mr Leslie (pictured) said.

He said: “The government and Whitehall should be doing more to empower councils, that see from the bottom up the benefits of collaboration and are actively debating whether to come together. This should also include small district councils that are facing the greatest financial pressures of all.”

Mr Leslie, who was a junior local government minister under Labour and ran the New Local Government Network thinktank before he returned to Parliament in 2010, said he and shadow communities and local government secretary Hilary Benn would “continue to explore the full range of options to support councils as they share services, pool budgets, and choose to collaborate and integrate further”.

Local government minister Brandon Lewis contrasted Mr Leslie’s speech with reported remarks in which Labour policy co-ordinator Jon Cruddas appeared to rule out reorganisation.

He said: “The Labour Party are in disarray on unitary local government restructuring, ruling it out one week and calling for it the next.

“By contrast, the coalition government is very clear that restructuring would be expensive, divisive and time-consuming, diverting time from improving frontline services and locally-led co-ordination.

“Labour is motivated by partisan politics, doing what they think is best for Labour self-interest rather than what’s best for the country.”

Mr Leslie also said that English local government was “enduring eye-watering reductions in revenue support grant which are threatening basic activities in social services, housing, environmental services, libraries and local voluntary bodies”.

Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce would examine how to orientate services “around users rather than necessarily sticking with the old – and expensive – bureaucratic way of working”, he said.

Eric Pickles finally outed at last as a force for bad – sort of

Peter Oborne, writings in today’s Sunday Telegraph, are music to my ears, if that’s actually possible – writings, ears?    His contribution to an article looking at the issues around the recent widespread flooding, focusses on the political dimension and in particular, the hamfisted and spiteful involvement of one, Eric Pickles MP.

In my opinion, the position of the local council leader, Mike Fisher (behind Pickles wearing glasses, says everything there is to say about Eric Pickles relationship with local government.
Photo with thanks to Croydon Advertiser

No sooner was Eric Pickles put in charge of dealing with the flooding incidents that were impacting a number of areas in the south of England, than he started apportioning blame and apologising for the supposed shortcomings and failures of the ‘blameworthy’.

Having honed his talents for spite and bile on belittling and criticising local government, he had now set about the Environment Agency, for failing to prevent the flooding of thousands of homes and businesses.  By inference, according to Peter Oborne, Pickles was also back stabbing a government colleague, Owen Paterson, laid low by a sight threatening detached retina that required urgent surgery, the cause of Pickles appointment, along with Lord Smith of Finsbury, Chairman of the EA.

For those of us involved in local government, this was very much par for the course with Eric Pickles, especially if there was a reporter’s microphone, or TV crew in sight.  However, and morale to anybody suffering from Pickles’s non-stop spite, is that his big mouthed, brute force handling of his new role, has seen him outed as no more the the “blundering Whitehall meddler” we all knew him to be.

      Disappointingly, Peter Oborne suggests that, up until this point, Eric Pickles was actually considered to be a safe pair of hands,           this despite his unchecked assault on local government, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.  So, unless Owen Paterson and Lord Smith confront David Cameron and tell him in no uncertain terms, it’s him or us, it would seem that local government is stuck with this loud mouthed lout, until May 2015.

Minimum room size standards – if you can afford it.

This extract from the DCLG press release, really gives me the willies, as my old dad used to say. I don’t have a problem with making sure homes work for older people – as I will be one, sooner than I wish to admit – and disabled people, so they should be. What I don’t like and what makes me both suspicious and, as usual, extremely cynical, is the bit in bold. How can one local authority have different room size needs, compared to another? Are there any secret pockets of pygmies or giants DCLG know about and we don’t?

Or is this DCLG speaking out of both sides of their collective mouths? They give you an opportunity to make an improvement in your policies, but only if you are willing to invest in proving that it is justified for your particular area? This is of course standard practice in Local Plan preparation. Producing the evidence required to justify NOT providing enough housing land, being the most obvious one. Gypsy and Traveller sites, leisure, public open space requirements and road infrastructure, are all evidence based requirements that are totally appropriate, as somebody has to pay for them and they should not be required just for the sake of it – but room sizes, really?

This statement is clearly designed to con people into thinking that DCLG are, to quote Eric Pickles, “on the side of hard working taxpayers”, whilst at the same time discouraging cash strapped councils from actually doing the evidence gathering required. If DCLG were genuine in their wish to see our rabbits hutch homes consigned to history, they would simple produce a national standard to be applied in the same as the building regulations are. Score another one for the vested interests of the planning industry me thinks.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said the administration was inviting views on “minimum space and access standards that would allow councils to seek bigger homes to meet local needs, including those of older and disabled people”.

Early figures reveal cuts of 16% for some councils

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
8 August, 2013 | By Ruth Keeling

Councils forced to revamp their savings plans after early sight of their individual funding allocations revealed cuts as high as 16% in 2015-16.

The indicative allocation figures, released last month by the Department for Communities & Local Government, have caused alarm within local government which had expected cuts of around 10%.

Councils suffering the deepest cuts have warned they could now be pushed towards a ‘doom’ scenario where services would have to be closed and vital growth plans ditched.

The extent of the cuts is the result of a series of ‘top slices’ taken from councils’ revenue support grant to fund central government programmes, such as the ‘Dilnot new burdens’ budget announced by the chancellor last month.

The hardest hit councils have been told their funding settlement assessment could fall by 16% in 2015-16. Only two authorities, Wokingham BC and Surrey CC, face cuts of less than 10%.

North Kesteven is among 69 councils facing a 16% cut. Deputy chief executive Alan Thomas said the authority might have to rethink its growth priorities. Its previous £1.75m saving plan will now have to be increased to £2.25m, equivalent to 15% of its £11.5m a year net budget.

Mr Thomas said the Conservative-run council might also review its existing policy of reserving New Homes Bonus payments for infrastructure spending. “I think we are going to have to take a different view of that now and use quite a bit of that New Homes Bonus to support core spending, otherwise we won’t be able to balance the books,” he said.

The authority was already reeling from the “absolutely devastating” government announcement that up to 35% of New Homes Bonus income will be handed to local enterprise partnerships from 2015-16, he added.

Districts and inner London boroughs were the hardest hit group of councils in 2015-16, facing 15% cuts on average. Outer London boroughs, metropolitan districts and unitaries face reductions of 14%; counties will see an average reduction of 13%.

David Huxtable (Con), cabinet member for resources at Somerset CC, which faces a 15% cut, said the reduction matched its most pessimistic plan and would have “a huge impact on services”.

He said: “We will have to stop doing things… We will only be looking after statutory services.”

While the early release of individual figures for 2015-16 has been welcomed, treasurers bodies are due to meet senior civil servants to discuss missing details in the coming months.

Brian Roberts, former president of the Society of County Treasurers and Leicestershire CC director of corporate resources, said: “Having these before the summer recess is very helpful. But there is still a lot of uncertainty.”

Local government has another 10% to find – for starters

I’ve borrowed this from the article published in today’s Sunday Telegraph – thank you ST. The further 10% cut in funding to local government, has been on the cards almost since the last cuts were announced, so that’s not the interesting bit.

What is interesting, is the Telegraph’s assessment that this is a defeat, I assume for the DCLG and Eric Pickles, as that couldn’t be further from the truth, given Mr Pickles constant eagerness to please his bosses. Let’s not forget, he was the first minister to settle, if that’s the right word for it. It’s more likely that Pickles was actually waiting outside the front door of the Treasury on the first day of this spending cuts round. He was probably like one of those over excited shoppers on the first day of the January sales, but in reverse. Instead of grabbing the bargains, as he burst through the doors, he leapt in, gleefully spreading local government grant funding around like confetti.

Dept of Communities and Local Government – Budget £25.92bn – Minister Eric Pickles

Battlegrounds Local authority budgets will bear the brunt of savings. The Local Government Association warns that children’s centres, museums, roads and bus fares will suffer cuts in the range of 10 per cent to the money local authorities get from Whitehall. Louise Casey, head of the Troubled Families Unit, is said to be behind moves to “take over” billions of pounds of spending from other departments.

Outcome – No deal yet. – Verdict Defeat