Is real localism possible during a time of austerity?
One of the key announcements in today’s Queen’s Speech was the introduction of new support arrangements for carers. The move will see carers afforded a statutory right to financial support, support from professional carers and adaptations to their homes where necessary. The government has allocated approximately £150m to cover the additional costs. However, while the bill aims to relieve the burdens experienced by carers, it will place significant strain on local authorities - both financially and administratively - and raises further questions around whether any real localism is possible during a time of austerity.
It is estimated that there are almost seven million carers in Britain. A carer is anyone who provides regular unpaid support for a friend or family member due to old age, illness, disability, mental health problems or an addiction. With an aging population, the number of carers is expected to increase. For many, caring is not their sole responsibility: they may have children of their own or are in full-time employment. The need for additional support for this group is not in question.
Set against this 7 million, the figure of £150m seems rather small. Tellingly, the new arrangements will also require councils to give detailed explanations of the reasons behind negative decisions. So if local councils cannot meet the financial burden of providing care in line with national policy, they will be faced with an administrative burden of explaining why not.
This announcement is part of a growing policy trend, in which central government announces policies for which local government then must take responsibility. Too often responsibility is passed on without the resources or freedoms to manage it. Take, for example, Council Tax Support. In April 2013, Council Tax Benefit (CTB) was abolished and replaced by a localised system of Council Tax Support (CTS). Under the new system eachlocal authority was responsible for devising its own scheme within a reduced budget.
One major requirement, however, was that pensioners would not see a reduction in the level of support. As pensioners make up a significant proportion of Council Tax Benefit recipients – more than half in some areas – the options for councils to make up the cut in funding have been limited. The autonomy of councils to devise the new schemes was later further constrained with the announcement that an additional £100m of funding would be made available to councils who met certain criteria of "best practice".
Similarly, many of the other recent reforms to the benefit system are heralded for the money they save. But all these savings go to central government. The cost of administering, for instance, the overall benefit cap – of providing support for families affected, of moving families elsewhere, of dealing with the ensuing problems of homelessness – all fall on the local authority. These costs have to be met from existing funds.
There are, then, two main issues arising in respect of today’s announcement. First, this policy fails to give any autonomy local areas – what the Government used to call “localism”. While the responsibility to look after carers has been transferred to the local level, the empowerment and freedom to pursue local priorities that is supposed to accompany this has not. In turn, it will be easy for central government to take full credit for the success of a policy, and wash its hands of any failure.
Secondly, there are the obvious problems that will arise from local authorities seeing increased financial and administrative pressures with less funding. Setting aside a fixed budget of £150m – a relatively small sum considering the number of carers - rather than refunding the actual cost of providing additional support will inevitably add risk to local authorities’ finances. This, it should also be noted, is occurring against the backdrop of cuts worth billions of pounds to care budgets.
There are big questions here for local government - this cannot be the model of localism they were expecting. Currently it is local authorities who are doing much of the hard work as cuts to local government funding deepen and central government shifts responsibility, but not power, outwards. So then, in a time of austerity what should localism look like?