Extra details on ‘levelling up’ will not be enough to make up for a lacklustre Queen’s Speech for councils, says Robert Stoneman, Local Government Analyst at GlobalData.
Like March’s budget, yesterday’s Queen’s Speech provided little in the way of new major legislation that will dramatically affect the local government sector. Aside from some further details on the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, there were at best vague promises around promoting economic recovery. Once again there was no firm timetable for the delayed social care green paper nor an expected white paper on devolution within England.
Here we pick over the morsels to find what will be of interest to local government and its technology suppliers.
Devolution Morphing into Levelling Up
The fact that the supporting documentation does not mention devolution once across its 163 pages just shows how far off the Government’s radar more far-reaching reforms have fallen. There is speculation this is due to the Prime Minister’s growing distaste for regional devolution after high profile squabbles with Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, despite being a key part of the last Tory manifesto, the Devolution White Paper is now officially dead in the water. Instead, it will be rolled up into a wider Levelling-Up White Paper which will be published later in the year. This will no longer be under the remit of the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, with responsibility now directly with the Cabinet Office and Number 10. Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough, has also been appointed as the Prime Minister’s Levelling Up Adviser. Seen within the Conservative Party as one of their most policy orientated MPs, his appointment is expected to bring clarity to a policy that hitherto has been joked about within Number 10 as “a slogan without a purpose”.
We speculated back in October 2020 that delays to further devolution were partly a political decision. Leaked plans had suggested any further powers and funding would be tied to the creation of new unitary authorities, a move that would have cut the number of lower-tier local authorities by up to two-thirds. Understandably this proved unpopular with many lower-tier councillors, half of which are Tory-run. Combined with the fact all but two of England’s 13 elected mayors are from Labour, there is little political benefit for the Prime Minister to fundamentally change the status quo.
Despite this, local government reorganisation in a more limited form may still have some legs. Councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset have already submitted proposals to create single-tier unitary authorities in their areas. Like with the recently formed Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council, there could be opportunities for suppliers to form a strategic partnership with any newly created local authorities to help unify their ICT services.
The Levelling Up Panacea
While the fate of widespread devolution within England is settled, what is less clear is what exactly ‘levelling up’ means in terms of specific policies. The Queen’s Speech has provided some nuggets; the Government highlighted growing jobs and investing in infrastructure, both digital and (quite literally) concrete. This included commitments to continue to extend 5G mobile coverage and gigabit-capable broadband across the UK. Also mentioned again was a UK Infrastructure Bank, set to launch later in the Spring, which will provide more than £40bn of financing to private sector and local authority infrastructure projects. These will be targeted at key projects covering clean energy, transport, housing, digital, water and waste.
It also mentioned plans to modernise and simplify local planning laws, a process which will involve moving towards a “digital and map-based service”. This will replace the current system of awarding planning permission on a case-by-case basis with a three-tiered zoning system that assigns areas as either ‘growth’, ‘protection’ or ‘renewal’ zones. Areas in growth zones will automatically be awarded planning permission so long as certain conditions are met. This will be introduced as part of a Planning Bill brought forward in the autumn.
While these measures will be welcomed by local authority leaders, there are hints it will have to be paid for by some form of further austerity in the wider public finances. Councils have already survived a decade of cuts to local public finances and will have little wiggle room to make further savings. This might not be so worrying if there were also more details on the delayed Fair Funding Review (a fundamental assessment of how funding is distributed to councils) or moves to further local business rate retention. Yet, with nothing more materialising, it could force many councils to cut services and reprioritise, or even reduce, technology spending (something GlobalData’s latest research explores further).
Still No Social Care Green Paper
There remains hope that the Social Care Green Paper will eventually establish how the NHS and local authorities will create a more cohesive health and care system and, as a result, a more unified approach to how it funds, manages and uses care technology. However, the fact there is still no word on when it will be published (aside from the vague promise that “proposals on social care reform will be brought forward”) means council leaders will remain deeply frustrated.
Instead, local authorities will be focused on finding ways to maintain social care budgets at the expense of other service lines despite a greater appreciation of the health and care benefits of maintaining other services (e.g., environmental and leisure services). They will also be looking towards the upcoming Health and Care Bill which will place Integrated Care Systems, of which local authorities are members, on a statutory footing across the UK.
All this means that technology-enabled care will remain an investment priority as it has been over the past year. For further exploration of what the Queen’s Speech means for the NHS and care more generally, be sure to read the accompanying blog by my colleague covering health and social care.
Overall, the 2021 Queen’s Speech failed to spring any major surprises for local government and was interesting just as much for what it did not say. Like the recent March budget, it was heavily focussed on the fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic. While councils will appreciate this, it is really a long-term plan for how the sector will be financed and structured that they need. For a Government seemingly focussed on building towards a 2023 election (once the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is repealed), they may still have some time to wait.