So much at stake when it comes to vital local services

Signing of shared services agreement between Norfolk and Suffolk County Council.Mark Bee and George

Signing of shared services agreement between Norfolk and Suffolk County Council.Mark Bee and George Nobbs meet on the old bridge at Beccles to sign the agreement. - Credit: Nick Butcher

Local government may not be a battleground issue, but there is much at stake. DAN GRIMMER reports

When the general election candidates are canvassing on the doorstep, not many of them will be trying to woo votes by promising what they would do for local government.

Making promises about the NHS, education and the economy resonate with voters far more than how much money the next government is going to hand to Norfolk County Council.

Yet, there is so much at stake over whether local councils have the money they need to provide vital services across the region.

Local councils are responsible for a huge number of services, including child and adult social care, recycling and rubbish collection, libraries and parks, housing and boosting the economy.


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Indeed, English local government will spend revenue of just under £100m in 2014/15 – a huge slice of public expenditure.

And council tax only goes a very small way to covering the cost of providing services. The bulk of it comes from Westminster, through the local government settlement and various other grants.

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The amount those councils get has dwindled in recent years. The National Audit Office estimates funding in 2016 will have been slashed by 37pc since 2010.

Cuts have been made – Norfolk County Council is in the midst of cutting £189m – and authority leaders have warned more savings will have to be found.

Yet, in counties such as Norfolk and Suffolk, with ageing populations, pressure on services such as adult social care, is climbing, at a time when funding is going down.

But taking money away from local government does not produce the same outcry which slashing funding from other government departments often yields.

Indeed, communities secretary Eric Pickles has argued that the cuts have forced local authorities to embrace modernity – to become leaner and meaner. He introduced changes which mean councils can keep more of the business rates raised in their area but, to the chagrin of some authorities, also said town and city halls had a 'moral duty' to freeze council tax.

He ordered that rises of more than 2pc would result in a local referendum.

Some voters will have agreed with the 'get tough' approach on what they saw as bloated local government. But Norwich City Council leader Brenda Arthur, said councils such as hers, which have avoided major cuts so far, will soon have no fat left to cut.

A solution being put forward is to devolve more power to English local authorities. Labour has talked about creating new statutory authorities at city and county region level, and chancellor George Osborne has also come out strongly in favour of combined authorities.

Norfolk County Council has already forged a closer relationship with Suffolk County Council, while Breckland District Council shares a managing director with South Holland District Council.

But for a county such as Norfolk, still scarred by the row over unitary, a more seismic shift in structure at local government level may yet prove too bitter a pill to swallow.

Conservatives

-Will keep council-tax bills down and ensure residents can continue to veto rises with referenda.

-Will encourage voluntary integration of services and administration between and within councils to promote savings and improve local services.

-Will give councils at least a 10pc stake in public sector land sales in their area.

-Allow councils to keep a higher proportion of business rates.

-Continue to support local shops and residents by tackling 'aggressive parking enforcement' and 'excessive parking charges'.

Greens

-Provide a £10bn-a-year uplift in local authority budgets to allow local authorities to restore essential local services, creating more than 200,000 local jobs.

-Add extra higher bands to council tax to allow authorities to raise more on the largest homes and not cap what authorities are allowed to raise in council tax.

-Allow councils to levy new local taxes, such as local tourist taxes and supermarket taxes.

-Ensure that grant funding is sufficient to pay for all statutory services councils are required to provide.

-Restore local authority control over education and allow local authorities to run local public transport.

Labour

-Have pledged to devolve £30bn to local councils, raised through Whitehall savings.

-Fair funding will be restored across England, alongside longer term multi-year budgets, so that local authorities can plan ahead on the basis of need in their area and protect vital services.

-An English Regional Cabinet Committee, chaired by the prime minister, will be convened regularly, attended by the relevant secretaries of state and leaders of our major city and county regions.

-More powers to limit the number of payday lenders on high streets

-The English New Deal begins the process of giving individuals and communities more power and control over how they are governed and over the design of public services.

Liberal Democrats

-Reduce the powers of ministers to interfere in democratically-elected local government.

-Remove the requirement to hold local referenda for council tax changes,

-Build on the success of City Deals and Growth Deals to devolve more power and resources to groups of local authorities and local enterprise partnerships

-Establish a government process to deliver greater devolution of financial responsibility to councils. The Lib Dems are proposing Devolution on Demand – enabling even greater

devolution of powers from Westminster to councils or groups of

-Councils working together.

-Support local libraries and ensure any under threat of closure are offered first for transfer to the local

community

UKIP

-Continue to give UKIP councillors the freedom to vote how they choose, with no 'whipping' to bloc vote.

-Keep council tax as low as possible

-Oppose excessive development and give local people control over planning, by giving them the final say on major planning decisions, such as out-of-town large-scale supermarket developments, wind turbines, incinerators and solar farms, through the use of binding local referenda

-Adopt a zero-tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour and crack down on nuisance and noisy neighbours

-Reinstate weekly bin collections where local communities have lost them and want them reinstated

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