The Week

The Week 12 January 2024

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy

Christmas seems a distant memory this week as Westminster and Whitehall’s gears have ground fully into action. Here are a few bits of the policy debate that might have slipped past you as a massive year in politics got underway… and as you tried to get that last bit of glitter out of the hallway carpet (just me?).

First, it’s worth checking in on the growing financial crisis in local government. More councils are on the verge of issuing s114 notices: Middlesborough and Somerset are the latest on the watchlist.

Some councils’ efforts to avoid effective bankruptcy are now leading to a tense policy debate.

Many local authorities are set to raise council tax in an effort to stabilise their finances. In Birmingham, where the commissioners have already swooped in, the plan is to raise council tax by up to 21% over two years (something which, even after recent loosening, can only be done with central government approval).

Local government minister Simon Hoare has meanwhile advised local authorities to use their financial reserves to keep afloat. These reserves are usually intended for crisis response, risk mitigation, or ringfenced for use to help fulfil a longer-term plan like town-centre regeneration or a public health programme. Using this money to cover the everyday cost of public services — a big source of the budget gaps that councils are contending with — is not a long-term solution. Predictably, opposition figures and local gov leaders have poured scorn on the idea. But, of course, the money does have to come from somewhere.

For example, councils could sell off their assets — which, reportedly, the Government is drawing up plans to facilitate. This would be another stopgap, doing little to address the structural causes of local fiscal pressures. Interestingly, this week also saw the publication of a report from the Community Ownership Commission, supported by the Cooperative Party, which sets out, among other things, the case for a ‘community right to buy’ any local assets of community value.

Presumably, many of the assets that councils might find themselves flogging to get through the year could be assets of this sort. In the absence of a strong ‘right to buy’ (communities currently have a limited ‘right to bid’), such assets will likely transfer directly from public to the private sector — not a crisis if the assets are well managed to the benefit of local people, but a classic example of communities being ‘crowded out’ between public and private players (a big part of our Reimagining the State analysis).

Meanwhile, the main attention of the main political parties has been focused elsewhere this week, setting out policies which may yet shape the debate in the coming general election. The Government has put forward plans for a major, long-term commitment to nuclear energy, while Labour has set out a raft of interventionist policies with the aim of ensuring childhood health.

Both of these are welcome instances of longer-term policy thinking: the former setting in motion the power generation that will take a while to come on-line, but will be much needed in decades to come; the latter setting out preventative ideas that will help to contain demand on the health system years from now. On this occasion, we say: don’t let either the ‘not in my back yard’ or the ‘no more nanny state’ brigades get in the way…

What we’ve been reading

Worthy of your attention this week is a new ‘People Plan’ for the Civil Service. Scoped through to 2027, this policy paper builds upon workforce priorities that have already been set out by the Government, with some welcome additional detail. There’s a lot in here, but plans to reform internal development programmes like the Future Leaders and Senior Leaders schemes caught our eye: these have come in for criticism as one of the ways in which Whitehall seems to assimilate officials into the established culture rather than embracing and making space for cognitive diversity.

Much of how Whitehall currently handles the recruitment, retention, and development of its people seems to be set for change — this is welcome, and rest assured that Reform will be sharing more ideas in this area soon!