The author has asked to remain anonymous, but has been a long-serving council leader and member of cabinet.
In the year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day we have been asked to pull together to show that commitment, single mindedness and resolve that our predecessors showed. Many have, not least the NHS, adult social care industry, the armed forces and police to name just a few. But to paraphrase Joan Baez’s war lament, where have all the councils gone?
Where have all our refuse services gone?
With everyone in lockdown at home gardening and DIY-ing, bin collections are more vital than ever in this crisis. So what was the council reaction?
Almost all local councils have cut their collection services! This includes garden waste and bulky waste collection. So you have to take your discarded swivel nozzle tap or remnant of the rotten wooden frame to the council tip.
Not necessarily! Those were closed ages ago. So normal, law abiding folk who are trying to adhere to lockdown are having their lives needlessly worsened by service cutbacks. It also looks as though district councils (who collect rubbish) failed to coordinate with the county councils who operate the tips.
Where have all our council tips gone?
This is the time to look at the scandal of closed tips a bit more closely. They’ve been closed for over 6 weeks during which time fly tipping has damaged our countryside. People have been forced to store piles of unwanted, dangerous chunks of wood, metal and electrical items.
When you look at the arrangements for reopening them, which feature the recommended social distancing procedures (queueing systems and some limitations on materials), you have to ask yourself why it took so long to introduce these measures? Re-opening the tips could have been implemented weeks ago. In the midst of a genuine crisis, this was one restriction that could have been avoided by better planning and a keep calm and carry on attitude.
Why haven’t all the potholes disappeared?
The roads are quiet. In general traffic volumes are at least 40 per cent down. But are councils taking the opportunity to repair potholes at a time when disruption would be minimal? In many cases, no. Have you seen armies of highway repair teams on the streets during your authorised car journeys? I haven’t.
Whilst a small number have stepped up their activity, (Stoke is a good example), the situation generally is so bad that at the end of April the Department for Transport had to instruct councils in charge of highways to get on with the job. Why on earth wasn’t the fantastic opportunity seized upon the minute lockdown was declared, especially as councils were notified before residents. The TaxPayers’ Alliance, among others, recommended this at the time.
With all these service reductions, why hasn’t your council tax bill decreased?
Councils are quiet, with most offices of course vacated and many services reduced, either by policy, as above, but also by a slowing of the economy. There are significantly fewer planning applications and enforcement cases. Food hygiene inspections are suspended, schools are closed, libraries are shut, public transport reduced and so on.
If a commercial business went into such a sustained state of hibernation, you can be pretty sure its costs would fall proportionately. However council staff are by and large excluded from the furlough provisions so they are all retained on full pay.
However, that doesn’t apply to council contractors. With many services reduced or even closed and most labour provided by contractors, the local government industry in England and Wales must be experiencing millions of pounds of cost savings. So how big will your council tax rebate be?
Zero! That’s despite many households struggling to make ends meet every month, and council tax rises already hitting hard across the country, with more than £55 million of unnecessary tax hikes. Councils should be passing on savings to already overburdened taxpayers.
Where have all our council staff gone?
So council staff are still on the payroll, even though so many services are reduced or stopped. We know why they are being paid, but what are they doing? There are many ways that those staff could be helping the national effort. Many volunteer groups have sprung up to get food and other deliveries to vulnerable people. This would have been a great temporary council service for all those staff not fully utilised right now, but still being paid by ratepayers. We expect other public services to muck in during times of crisis. Why not council staff?
Where have all our government grants gone?
Local councils were charged with distributing government grants to keep small businesses running. Over a month into lockdown, some councils were reported as having distributed barely 10 per cent of the funds available whilst businesses were going to the wall. There has been some improvement, not least when chancellor Rishi Sunak heeded the TPA’s advice on how to improve the loan scheme. But councils could have stepped up much earlier.
In those critical first few days of the crisis, some councils when approached just offered an email address as their offer of “help” for small businesses. That’s despite their advanced warnings and briefings from the government. True to form, many councils have done more to hinder local business than to help them.
In one case, a local government source alleged that a council with a very high distribution rate was forcing funds onto businesses that didn’t want the money, a tactic which certainly made their performance look good but it didn’t help the businesses that still hadn’t been contacted. Local councils will need to look hard at themselves if we emerge from lockdown with many of our small and medium sized local businesses simply wiped out.
Where has our local democracy gone?
Many councils have all but suspended the entire democratic process. Councillors get told what is happening by email, and in many councils there isn’t any video conferencing to enable them to express the democratic views of the taxpayers they represent.
The business community has embraced technology to run meetings, hold seminars and run training courses. This is another lesson from the commercial sector that seems to have passed by our local councils. Going forward, we can be sure that the ratepayers will expect councils to adapt to better connectivity and remote working, offering greater value for money.
Their finest hour?
Overall the report card for local councils puts it bottom of the class in the public sector. Slow to respond, failing to use resources properly, failing to pass on cost savings and lacking in creativity. When the dust settles, Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government, should carry out an in-depth analysis of what went wrong in many councils. Local authorities must learn from their mistakes to ensure they are prepared for future crises. With confidence in councils already at rock bottom, taxpayers won’t accept more of the same.