Happy New Year! - Group Leader's Comment - 12 January 2018

A new year dawns with new opportunities and challenges, which we are getting good at tackling.

We have some good successes to build upon. The Independent Group remains the third largest group in number at the LGA. More of our members than ever are engaged with their communities and working with the LGA for wider improvements. Members are listening and contributing to national policy, either through our annual conferences, our increased number of regional meetings, seminars (including newly introduced webinars), active think tanks with lead members and regional peers, media, social media, and straightforward correspondence. Some members also gave evidence to the Government Select Committees on behalf of the LGA. Our group is increasingly recognised as the most active, thanks to all our excellent members and staff.

During the past year, with determined lobbying in all quarters, we successfully gained £2bn for adult services. We are still working on getting the same for children's services, more overall and fairer funding, now due in 2020. A Green Paper on the long-term support for older person's care is planned.

We consistently work to establish local government as a respected and independent partner in government.

We took a lead in the Brexit negotiations by earning a seat at the table and using it to state clearly the needs of local government raised by our group members. We are calling for changes, such as procurement to allow local purchasing and for border control, and we are asking to keep some legislation, such as the employment and environmental legislation, to maintain clean air, rivers and beaches. During the year, I was twice selected to speak on behalf of local government for Europe (not the EU), on environmental issues; and three of our members worked to improve EU legislation that is due for adoption by the UK.

We have moved closer to keeping our own business rates with 50 per cent, and now 100 per cent in 10 further pilot areas, nine of them being whole counties, including their district councils. In the most recent announcements, we gained an additional £15m for the most rural of councils. We have also achieved the flexibility to raise some additional council tax without a referendum. However, the issues are far from resolved and work continues.

I would like to thank our Group Executive and all our members; Toby Ganley, current Head of Office during Sarah Woodhouses' maternity leave; and Noleen Rosen. I would also like to extend a warm welcome to new staff member Aimee Wittams-Smith, taking over from Vanessa Chagas who has returned to Portugal with her family.

Looking forward, we will need a determined effort on all elections. Having the national elections crashing through the middle of our local elections was damaging last year, especially in areas coinciding with boundary changes. This year is a good opportunity for us. Our strongest characteristic is our connection with our communities, genuinely engaging at every opportunity and standing up for their needs. Support for those standing and the "Be a Councillor" campaign will be important, as well as a continued push for better democratic representation (through campaigns for proportional representation). 

Key issues for local government remain. Firstly, the financial pressures as Government passes less of our income tax to local government and secondly, the national Brexit negotiations, which seem to me to have achieved little so far, other than a large bill.

Our councils continue to take up energy-saving and business ideas to increase income. As less of our income tax comes back locally, we may also see further asset sales, use of reserves, service cuts and local taxes and charges increases. Let me know if you have some examples of good performance to share. 

I met this week with Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, to seek better support for our councils at this critical time in the decision-making process. Following the Autumn Statement, the detail of the proposed settlement for councils was announced on December 19, to be laid before the House of Commons in February 2018.

There is almost no new money this time, only the £15m rural Delivery Grant. The Fairer Funding Review is due for completion by April 2020, when all core grants expire altogether.

Instead, we are invited to raise our local tax by 1 per cent to 2.99 per cent per annum. The Police and Crime Commissioners will be able to raise a further £12 or 3 per cent per household for policing. The good news, we think, subject to strings, is the announcement of a further 10 pilot areas for retention of business rates: Berkshire, Derbyshire, Devon, Gloucestershire, Kent and Medway, Lincolnshire, Solent, Suffolk, Surrey and Leeds. Read the full LGA briefing.

The Welsh settlement was a different story with a slight increase compared to the final settlement in 2017/18. Sustained core funding for local public services was welcomed by the WLGA.

So that brings you up to date so far. There are briefings on almost any topic affecting our councils. Our next seminar is on conflict resolution, Monday 19 February from 11am to 1pm in Smith Square 1& 2 (Ground Floor), at 18 Smith Square, London SW1P 3HZ, and a new annual Spring conference added into the calendar for 2 March 2018 in Lincoln.

I look forward to seeing you soon and wish you all a very happy and successful 2018.