In the last few days two separate proposals have emerged from the Government which gives the impression that they wish to improve the lives of people in our communities whilst at the same time ignoring completely the fact that they have previously stripped local government of nearly all the income it previously received to allow it to deliver on services that are not obligatory. These two new proposals would only be possible if local Government had additional funds and in any case they ignore that both sets of proposals are in areas where local government has already tried to persuade the Government to help fund, and failed badly.
Over the last five years youth services have been gradually ripped apart in terms of the local government funding. Some local authorities ran their own services and then tried to transfer elements to the voluntary sector before finally withdrawing funding all together. More progressive Councils had previously put most of the service delivery into the voluntary sector but in some senses this made the cuts even more damaging as they destroyed much older structures and delivery vehicles. However while all that was going on, at the outset of the coalition Government, Francis Maude and David Cameron came up with a new approach to youth provision called the National Citizen Service. One of its forbears was National Service although it also had social cohesion in its origins. There are many problems with the way NCS was introduced and structured (A charity I chaired for a decade was one of the first in Sussex to participate) and while local government was having its non statutory funding for youth services stripped out, central Government found Millions to fund the introduction and rapid expansion of NCS, which happened much more slowly than the two men had promised. However like most things that Central Government starts, since the Ministers concerned have moved on, they have now lost interest in funding it and so lo and behold the successors to Maude and Cameron, Karen Bradley and Tracey Crouch have come up with a clever idea – they would like local councils to take up the reigns and fund NCS. What a stupid request! Where is this funding supposed to come from?
The second element of this crazy set of proposals comes from Justine Greening who is looking on as the lack of Government money has led to the closure of Childrens Centres (around 30% have been closed since 2010) and yet the evidence that such provision has had a huge positive impact on the communities where they are based. So like Bradley and Crouch, Greening has come up with the bright suggestion that Councils should increase Council Tax to enable them to fund such provision. Not only is this counter to the calls from Justines ex Cabinet colleagues such as Eric Pickles who demanded Councils resist the pressure to increase Council Tax and even penalised Councils that did so, but it ignores the fact that they are prevented from lifting council tax bills above a certain level and those Councils that are still below that threshold are unlikely to raise the bills simply at the request of a Government Minister.
We need this Government to get a grip and pay attention, both to its previous policies and also to their impact on local Government. It is certainly true that we need to fund Childrens Centres and Youth Services in the broadest sense, but such funding cannot come from empty budget areas. Funding needs to come from the Government that seems well capable of inventing magic money trees in the areas that matter to it, but denies their existence in areas where they do not care about society.