Election 2015

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In this feature l credible policies l what local government wants l challenges ahead Cut to the bone? In the run-up to the general election in May next year, TS Todays Jo Halpin analyses how deep the cuts might go for local authorities T he countdown to the big day has begun. No, not Christmas but the UK general election, which is now only 190* sleeps away. Just like Christmas, the build-up to polling day is likely to be frenzied; unlike Christmas, however, it may be long after the Queens Speech before we know if our political leaders have served us up a turkey. After five years of austerity under the coalition government, the electorate will be looking to see which of the three main Westminster parties offers the most credible policies for moving the UK away from an age of pay freezes and spending cuts. Between now and 7 May 2015, every promise made by the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats will be scrutinised not least by those who work in the public sector, which has often been at the sharp end of austerity measures over the past five years. In October 2010, the Chancellor, George Osborne, unveiled public spending cuts of 81 billion up to 2014/15, as well as announcing that the amount of money local councils receive from government would be cut by7.1 per cent from April 2011.1 The result for organisations such as trading standards has been a systematic and sustained reduction in services and staff numbers. Trading standards budgets in England andWales will have been cut by an average of 40 per cent by 2016, and 70 per cent of trading standards services will have had to restrict or stop some services.2 Meanwhile, staffing levels have fallen by about 45 per cent since 2009.3 So, what can the public sector expect from 2015 onwards and what does local government want from whichever party is inpower? At the recent political-party conferences in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow the Local Government Association (LGA) took the opportunity to promote its publication: Investing in our nations future: the first 100 days of the next government. Among the many events the LGA attended was a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference sponsored by Which? and TSI on how councils have continued to offer consumer protection during these austere times. (See page 17 for TSIs report from the party conferences.) The key to transforming public services in the future, the LGA claims, is more devolution of power to elected councillors. Itis also calling for community budgets and financial settlements for the public sector that are tied to the lifetime of a parliament and says 100 Days is a readymade, fully costed, long-term answer to the hard questions they [the new government] will face when the dust settles on 8 May.4 In the wake of the No vote in the Scottish referendum secured partly by promises made by the three main UK parties about ceding more powers to politicians north of the border the question of devolution for England is now being loudly debated. The LGA believes there is an appetite in all parts of the country for power to be devolved to local areas, and that whoever takes power in 2015 will have to work withour public services to tackle a numberof problems such as local governments projected 12.4 billion funding gapby 2019/20.5 But are any of our potential future leaders David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband listening? And with austerity predicted to continue into 2018, will public services simply face more of the same over cutsto services and staffing,regardless of who is in power? 6 While the political parties have yet to firm up their election manifestos, the Conservatives spoke at their conference of tax cuts and benefit caps; Labour mooted the introduction of a mansion tax, and increasing the minimum wage; while the Liberal Democrats proposed increasing taxes on the wealthy and new fiscal rules to ensure the deficit has gone by 2018. All three parties pledged to protect NHS funding in the next parliament, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats promising more money to the health service. Other departments such as education, international aid and defence may yet also receive protection from real-term cuts. Speaking to the Local Government Chronicle (LGC), Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, said councils financial outlook could be bleaker than expected because of the costs of protecting NHS spending, pledges to cut tax, and predicted interest rate rises. A one per cent rate rise would add 8 billion to the national debt, he said. We have all been saying councils are between 40 per cent and 50 per cent through their cuts. It may be they are only a third of the way through, and theres worse to come, Whiteman added.7 Meanwhile, Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, told the LGC: The financial outlook for local government after the general election is pretty dreadful. Forecasts get produced, but they have to be taken with a pinch of salt as the economy changes. I think the bottom line is clear: the public-spending climate is going to be pretty tight. 8 With the UK economy showing signs of recovery but still delicately balanced therewill certainly be challenges ahead for local authorities, regardless of who makes it to Number 10. Sources: *As of 28 October 2014 1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11579979 2. Trading Standards Institute, 40 per cent cut in trading standards will devastate vulnerable consumers, 7 April 2014 www.tradingstandards.gov.uk/extra/news-item.cfm/newsid/1464 3. Trading Standards Institute, Workforce Survey 2014 www.tradingstandards.gov.uk/policy/WorkforceSurvey2014.cfm 4. Local Government Association, Investing in our nations future: the first 100 days of the next government, June 2014 http://100days.b-creativedesign.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/ Investing-100days-template-web.pdf 5. ibid 6. BBC, UK could face austerity until 2018, 26 November 2012 www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20470864 7. Kate Youde, Party conference pledges indicate bleak outlook for council budgets, Local Government Chronicle, 8 October 2014 www.lgcplus.com/topics/politics/party-conference-pledgesindicate-bleak-outlook-for-council-budgets/5075562.article 8. ibid Credits Published Images: Christopher Furlong / 28 October, 2014 To share this page, click on in the toolbar Jeff J Mitchell / Getty images