Sam Davies

Our unequal relationship with central government (Your Councillor, week 10)

The publication of the agenda for this Thursday’s full Cambridge City Council meeting has prompted me to further mull over the relationship between central and local government.

Item 4c on the agenda highlights the problematic nature of this relationship with regard to funding. The ‘2020/21 Revenue and Capital Outturn, Carry Forwards and Significant Variances‘ report records how the Council’s budget has worked out in reality over the 20/21 financial year.

The headline here is that the direct impact of the pandemic (costs incurred plus revenue lost) for the Council totalled £18.5 million.

This has been mitigated to some extent by central government grants of £11.3 million, but those collectively only cover two thirds of the Council’s additional net expenditure.

I’ve talked before about the many strings which central government attaches to local government funding – growth deals, levelling up funds, etc – but the Covid funding was supposed to be different. In 2020 I sat through hours of calls with officers from both the City and County Councils while they were setting up their Covid response projects, and the reassurance was always offered that at least the government had assured councils it would “do whatever was necessary” to cover the additional costs they were incurring.

This then provided the confidence to act rapidly and in good faith, taking on challenging work such as the ‘Everyone In’ initiative, to ensure that rough sleepers had access to safe clean accommodation, benefitting both those individuals and the wider public. And although some savings were made in some service areas (for example, due to the cancellation of City Council events like the Big Weekend on Parker’s Piece), other services’ costs went up (for example, changes to bin collections to allow for staff social distancing).

Councils were explicitly told their costs would be covered. Yet they haven’t been. In the meantime, the pandemic and its costs still roll on.

It’s too early to see the concrete impacts of the missing funding, but when you bear in mind that the City Council spends about £100 million a year on services, you can immediately see the potential significance of that £7.2 million hole.

The report also indirectly indicates future funding vulnerabilities as climate change obligations mount. One year’s decreased use of city centre car parks lost the City Council over £7 million in revenue. What financial choices might the Council have to make, if that became a permanent state of affairs?

If you want to get into the nuts and bolts of what the City Council actually does, and the levers available to it, the report provides a great way in.

A second strand of local/central tension can be seen in the motions presented by Councillors (item 6), relating to:

  • The forthcoming COP26 global climate conference – both the sustainable food agenda (6a) and the Climate Task Force (6e)
  • The impact of the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on civil liberties (6b)
  • Reduction in pesticide use on council land (6c)
  • Winter opening of Jesus Green Lido (6d)
  • The government’s Planning White Paper and its proposals for moving to a ‘zoning’ based planning system (6f).

These are all worthwhile issues but I note that only two of them (6c and 6d) fall within the Council’s direct remit. Before I was elected, I distinctly remember being sternly cautioned by an old council hand against ‘Westminstering’, which I took to mean as sticking to local issues and whatever the Council can directly control. But is there a legitimate role for councils to ‘send a message’ to central government? What is the chance it will have any influence?

At the moment, the relationship between central and local government is extremely unequal. For all the talk about devolution and localism, central government holds all the influence.

What does that mean then for what ‘good’ local government looks like, and where councillors should be focussing their efforts? As ever, I would welcome your thoughts.

Sam Davies