Jo Miller: The price local councils like mine are paying on the front line in the fight against austerity

FINALLY, after weeks of waiting, local councils have been allocated the financial settlement from the Government that they will have to use to provide those vital public services that communities rely on every day.

Jo Miller is chief executive of Doncaster Council.
Jo Miller is chief executive of Doncaster Council.

As the Westminster and Whitehall machine is entirely consumed by that thing beginning with “B” , the delays mean that there is no room either for debate about a much-needed new domestic policy agenda, nor to do the basics like giving the clarity that town halls need to underpin their council tax setting legal obligations.

We’ve just get to get on with the job. And we will.

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English councils have been hit hard by the austerity agenda - and it is fuelling divisions in society, argues local government leader Jo Miller.

As well as being a Doncaster Council’s chief executive, I have had a national role these last two years as president of ‘Solace’ – the professional body representing council chief executives and senior managers in UK councils.

That role has required me to
speak up for my colleagues, for public service and for the people and places we serve.

As that role draws to a close, I reflected on the last couple of years and what comes next for local government.

Chancellor Philip Hammond controls the nation's purse-strings.

I have had a major focus on diversity and inclusion, believing as I do that inequality is one of the greatest scourges of our time. While globally poverty is reducing, the differences between communities seem greater than ever before.

These differences may be of income – those with extreme wealth versus those who barely make ends meet.

There are generational differences between those who have benefited from a free state higher education, own properties and are well looked after via the state versus our young people who face enormous debt and may struggle to ever own property.

And, of course, there’s the whole North-South divide and the differences between wealthy big cities who find it easier to attract resources than their neighbouring towns which are often poorer, and also rural areas.

These things aren’t new and they now exist in a world where technology dictates our pace of life.

The maxim that “the pace of change is the fastest it’s ever been and the slowest it will ever be” is as true as ever.

Our national bandwidth is consumed by Brexit at the expense of the future planning of good public services.

Brexit wasn’t the start or the cause of our divisions, but it has laid our divisions bare – these divisions will not be eased until we address the underlying issues in our country.

We need to understand the forces that give rise to the global overtones of nationalism, protectionism and populism, alongside mistrust in our public institutions and meet those forces head on.

We have had austerity for 10 years, and it is commonly accepted that councils have faced the worst of the cuts in government expenditure. I’m proud of the work my colleagues have done, working with communities to innovate, think differently, save money and transform.

All this at a time of rising demand
for services – sometimes from population change, sometimes as a result of poorly implemented national policy, like Universal Credit to name one.

I fully understand and accept that our country must live within its means, and our job locally is to deliver for local people within the confines of what is set nationally. That said, the challenges are stacking up.

Age UK say 1.4 million over 65s are struggling without help to perform basic tasks, an the Children’s Commissioner says 1.6 million children are living in families with substantial complex needs but not receiving support. To put this in context, we spend half of our children’s services money in England on 73,000 children in care and the other half on 11.7 million children. Rough sleeping levels have more than doubled since 2010. Food banks are now a vital part of our community infrastructure. I could go on, but you catch my drift.

We need to think about the type of country we want to be post-Brexit. We are in danger of breaking the social contract with citizens when being in work doesn’t guarantee that you will have a decent roof over your head and can feed your children; when your 
vote counts for little because rising council tax brings only reduced services; and when local council services are deemed sustainable by Whitehall purely if the most vulnerable can be accommodated and loans paid. What price democracy when more than 80 per cent of the money is spent on five per cent of the electorate?

Strong vibrant communities and strong vibrant economies go hand in hand. Before austerity, council
services and schools were funded to the tune of £200 more per head of population in Scotland and Wales than in England (as a result of the understandable ‘‘Barnett’’ funding formula).

Today, councils and schools are funded at £800 more per head in Scotland and Wales than in England because the devolved administrations have made choices to protect those services that communities rely on.

That demonstrates to me the different value governments place on public services and shows the power of devolution. I don’t remember it being in anyone’s manifesto to reduce things here to such a bare offer. We can’t keep treating things like good public spaces, preventative services and public health like optional “nice to haves” when they lay at the heart of thriving communities.

Governments and economic cycles come and go like the weather. Even the Brexit storm will pass at some point. In the meantime local government and public servants will ‘‘be steadfast and crack on’’ – our unofficial motto in Doncaster. For all its challenges, it remains an absolute privilege to be a public servant here in Yorkshire and to have had the chance to promote our work on a national stage.

Jo Miller is chief executive of Doncaster Council.