Adequately fund local government to prepare for future crises

“If we are to be prepared for future crises, whether they are to do with health or the climate emergency, local authorities must be funded adequately at all times.” Chair of the Association of Green Councillors Paul Woodhead calls for proper financial support for local authorities on the frontline of providing vital services during the coronavirus pandemic.

Rotherham playground
Rotherham playground

Image: Luis Arroyo

Paul Woodhead

Green Party councillors across the country whether in administration or opposition, as a group or as a lone councillor, continue to lead the response to the Covid-19 crisis in the community and the (virtual) council chamber. The reports from across the country bring credit to those involved and the Green Party as a whole.

These have been challenging times for all of us, whether we are a key worker keeping food stores open, caring for those through the NHS, in care homes or in their own homes, or isolated away from friends and family by observing the guidance around social distancing. From a councillor’s perspective, this crisis has brought into sharp relief the absolutely pivotal role of local authorities and their devaluation by central government through austerity measures over the last decade.

This week, the government announced the split by local authority of the second tranche of additional support funding bringing the total support now to £3.2 billion. Responding to the consultations with stakeholders, this latest distribution, in two-tier areas, leans more heavily towards district and borough councils, reflecting the very local pressures felt by councils supporting their communities.

Through this crisis we have seen many announcements by the government that have required local action directly and many more where local authorities have needed to step into the gap between the government’s ambitions and its ability to deliver. 

Over the last decade we have seen local authority funding cut by nearly half and a resulting reduction in services, officers and capacity to serve their communities. The government transfer of the source of funding from equalised grants to locally-sourced levies has placed a reliance on growth to receive Council Tax, Business Rates and commercial income. This has polluted the independent decision-making of local leaders where scrabbling around for sufficient funds to keep the lights on is an uncomfortable dilemma faced in every decision in every council.

It is against the background of this systematic and ideological desolation of local democracy that the response and support from the government to local authorities must be seen and the resilience of officers and councillors alike should be admired.

The money from the government is absolutely helpful and will prevent most becoming insolvent in the coming weeks and cover some of the lost income and increased costs imposed on local authorities throughout this crisis. 

However, this money merely serves as a sticking plaster and is only a fraction of the funds needed, not just to cover the direct and indirect costs borne by local authorities but to address the consequential losses expected in the months and years ahead and prepare for a new reality where true devolution could be anchored in our communities and is reflective of local needs.

There are a great many aspects of local governance that need to be addressed beyond the funds to supply services and to address the local democratic deficit. These have presented challenges for councils both for those outside the administration and, in some cases, even those within an administration where senior officers make urgent and arbitrary decisions without scrutiny. 

The out-of-date regulations that inform how local government must operate have been exposed as decades behind the times, where the use of online tools were not even considered, never mind understood and embraced by organisations. It has been a steep learning curve but we are still lagging behind the speed of the events in this crisis.

Local authorities were established in the mid-nineteenth century to address the health epidemics of the time and respected as a route to support communities. If we are to be prepared for future crises, whether they are to do with health or the climate emergency, local authorities must be funded adequately at all times. If this is the case, any emergency funding like that delivered this week to address the additional pressures of the Covid-19 crisis have firm foundations to build upon and ensure we can be responsive in our communities and save lives in a prosperous, equitable and environmentally-just future for all.

Paul Woodhead is a Green Party councillor on Cannock Chase District Council and is Chair of the Association of Green Councillors.