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Are we looking at 10 years of disruption for local services?

MV’s Andrew Laird argues that central government needs to prioritise restarting the drive for devolution to protect local services from years of instability.

I hope this won’t be the case – but it is feeling like local services could be an unintentional victim of Brexit. Just to be clear, I’m not making a political judgement on whether Brexit is right or wrong but I am saying that the Brexit process and the fact that central government is in a permanent state of distraction has already had a very negative impact on local services.

Let’s start with devolution, the very thing that would go some way to insulating local service reform from central government’s saturation with Brexit. The drive for devolution has been knocked down the priority list. This was once a really positive agenda item for central government. Giving local areas additional powers felt like a really positive step and in many ways was a big step towards insulating local services from central government distraction and change. Even legislation to bring agreed local government reorganisations into effect has been held up.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Government is the funding and quality crisis in adult social care. The green paper on social care needs to set out a serious long term answer to this but it has been delayed and delayed. There are two issues causing this delay. The first is creating the time for Ministers and Cabinet to agree to the plan – there isn’t much non-Brexit headspace at the top of government right now. The second is that this paper needs to set out the tough decisions on funding and this will undoubtedly require media space to explain it to the public. Again there isn’t much non-Brexit time at the minute. So the can gets kicked further down the road and adult services struggle on. This has a much wider impact. Without setting out a long term funding solution to social care any NHS reforms (which are more advanced) will be doomed from the start.

Looking to the future we can already see further potential disruption.

The planned cross government spending review scheduled for later this year is at risk. The Chancellor has made it pretty clear that if the future of Brexit doesn’t look a lot clearer then there is simply no point in thinking about spending for the next three years. This would have a big impact on new government programmes (there wouldn’t be many if any!) and the local services service these programmes would support and reform.

As luck would have it, the gumming up of the devolution agenda has come at a time when the two major political parties are being heavily influenced by their extremes. The stabilising consensus around the fabled “middle ground” of the Blair/Brown/Cameron years has fallen victim to both Brexit and disillusionment with the political class. We could be looking at years of the pendulum of government swinging dramatically to the left and right at periodic intervals. Let’s say there was a change of government at the next election and the Labour party took over. The reform agenda (nationalisation and re-establishing the public sector as a monopoly provider of public services) would be pretty radical and would take most of the Parliament to enact. This undoubtedly be disruptive. What then if there was a change of government again after four or five years? You’d probably see a programme of work to try and unpick all of that. Again, very disruptive at the local level.

The answer has to be to reprioritise the devolution agenda and try and insulate local services from central government. Devolving power to combined authorities and elected mayors as well as enhancing the roles of Local Enterprise Partnerships would all help.

Ceding power to local areas at a time when we are looking at unstable government for years to come would be the most sensible (and benevolent) thing central government could do.

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