EVEN before George Osborne, the then Chancellor, started implementing austerity measures in 2010, the Conservatives were invariably dismissive of complaints from local councils – and police forces – about day-to-day spending pressures.
The party’s default response was to blame the profligacy of Labour. This argument no longer holds. It is Tory-controlled Northamptonshire County Council which has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, with other councils, like Somerset, also feeling the squeeze. And North Yorkshire, too, is not immune from the difficulties.
Yet, while public bodies should, just like the private sector, be expected to reform and innovate each year so the delivery – and quality – of key services becomes more efficient, there needs to be a far more fundamental review about the role of councils and police forces.
With devolution gathering pace in many parts of the country – Yorkshire being a notable exception – the boundaries of responsibility between Whitehall and local government are becoming blurred when it comes to the delivery of priority services from the social care of the elderly to potholes.
It can’t continue like this. What should be the role of municipal councils in the 21st century? Should local leaders, or Ministers, determine priorities? And to what extent should they be funded by Government grants or local taxation? These questions, and many others, are all fundamental to making sure that the future of the country’s schools, and services for the most vulnerable, are not further compromised.
And it’s why Theresa May will be performing a vital public service if she sanctions such a review while, at the same time, pledging to overhaul the outdated funding formula which successive governments have used to allocate grants to local councils. This much is owed to all those rural areas that don’t receive a fair deal. And though Brexit is still the Tory leader’s sole priority, it is invariably matters pertaining to local services which matter most of all to voters – the very issues which led to the Prime Minister losing her majority at last year’s election.