Budget 2016 – 5 messages for local government

One pound coin on fluctuating graph. Rate of the pound sterling

By Heather Cameron

Last week George Osborne revealed the details of his 2016 Budget, at the centre of which was a major deterioration of the forecast for productivity growth. Last year, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) projected an average growth in productivity per hour of 1.9% between 2015-16 and 2020-21; that average is now 1.7%.

As a result, a further £3.5 billion of savings from public spending is to be found in 2019/20. While Osborne has suggested these savings are equivalent to 50p in every £100 the government spends, experts have warned that the figure is closer to £2 or £3 for services that haven’t been protected.

What does it mean for local government?

Despite no direct cuts for local government, it remains unclear where these savings will come from. And with ring fencing of much public spending, local government may yet again bear the brunt of these cuts one way or another.

Business rates

Concerns have been raised over the announcement to extend business rate relief, the revenue from which is 50% retained by councils. It was revealed that this will remove £7 billion from the total take in England over the next five years; 600,000 small businesses will pay no rates at all from next year.

While good news for small businesses, there are fears it could leave a huge hole in local government finances as all locally raised business rates are to be fully devolved by the end of 2020. This will be accompanied by the phasing out of central government grants, and the devolution of additional spending responsibilities.

The government says that “local government will be compensated for the loss of income as a result … and the impact considered as part of the government’s consultation on the implementation of 100% business rate retention in summer 2016.”

But details of how such compensation will work remain unknown. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has suggested that the government’s plans for reimbursing local government is “nigh on impossible”.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), if protection for council budgets isn’t extended to beyond the devolution of business rates, councils stand to lose £1.9bn per year, or 2.9% of their total revenues.

Benefits cuts

Further cuts to welfare spending could also have a knock-on effect. The Chancellor outlined controversial plans to reform Personal Independent Payments (PIP) for disabled people, to save £1.3 billion. Overall, £4.4 billion will be cut from benefits for disabled people over the course of the parliament.

The cuts to PIP have been described as ‘devastating’ for disabled people, with many relying on them to live independently. They could therefore lead to increasing pressure on already stretched local services.

Even the government’s own party members criticised these cuts, which have since led to the shock resignation of Iain Duncan Smith and a government U-turn on the reforms to PIP, which will now not go ahead.

But there is no alternative plan to fill the hole left by this U-turn so local government may still need to brace themselves for cuts elsewhere.

Education

Under the education reforms, every state school in England is to become an academy by 2020 or have a plan in place to do so by 2022, ending the century-old role of local authorities as providers of education.

But, as our recent blog has highlighted, there are ongoing concerns over the academy programme with little evidence to justify it.

The plans have been criticised by councils and teaching unions. Chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) children and young people board, said:

We have serious concerns that regional schools commissioners still lack the capacity and local knowledge to have oversight of such a large, diverse and remote range of schools.”

Ofsted rated 82% of council maintained schools as good or outstanding, while the results of recent HMI inspections of academies has been described as “worrying”. The findings also highlighted a “poor use of public money”, something that has been reiterated by the LGA.

In response, the LGA noted that “councils have been forced to spend millions of pounds to cover the cost of schools becoming academies in recent years”.

Devolution deals

There was some better news for local government in the form of new devolution deals with the West of England, East Anglia, and Greater Lincolnshire. The West of England and East Anglia will each receive a £900 million investment fund over 30 years to boost economic growth, while Greater Lincolnshire’s deal is worth £450 million.

New powers over the criminal justice system are also to be transferred to Greater Manchester and business rates are to be fully devolved to the Greater London Authority next year, 3 years before everyone else.

The LGA welcomes these deals as recognition of the economic potential of all local areas and calls for a return to the early momentum in which similar deals were announced last year.

Flood defences

Another positive for local government was the £700 million funding boost for flood defences by 2020-21, including projects in York, Leeds, Calder Valley, Carlisle and across Cumbria, to be funded by a 0.5% increase in the standard rate of Insurance Premium Tax.

Considering the extent of recent winter flooding, this was welcomed by local government as a “step in the right direction”.

However, the LGA has stated that councils will need further help from government once the full cost of recent damage emerges. It has also called for flood defence funding to be devolved to local areas so the money can be spent on where it is really needed.

Final thoughts

So despite no direct cuts for local government, and the welcome boost to local economies and flood defences, it remains to be seen whether local government will lose out financially in the longer term.


Read our related blog on the total academisation of schools.

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The Scottish budget 2016-17: what does it mean for digital?

THe Scottish Parliament, Holyrood, Edinburgh

The Scottish Parliament. Image by dun_deagh via Creative Commons

By Steven McGinty

Last week, the Scottish Finance Secretary, John Swinney, published his budget for the next financial year. Unsurprisingly, it begins by outlining the financial challenges facing the Scottish Government. Mr Swinney highlights that the Scottish Budget will continue to fall year-on-year, and by 2020 will have fallen by 12.5% in real terms since 2010. These figures paint a very bleak picture for Scotland’s public finances.

However, with this pressure on public funds, the Scottish Government has given a clear commitment to digital. The budget states:

The Government will take steps to extend digital applications in public services, increase the use of shared services, secure further value from procurement developments, ensure effective use of assets and reduce overlap between public services. The digital agenda will both produce savings and improve the quality of our services.

What funds have been made available?

In cash terms, the funding for Scotland’s digital strategy has more than doubled to £116 million. This has been achieved by merging a number of distinct budgets, which, according to the Scottish Government, reflects the integrated nature of the strategy. The majority of the funding has been allocated to capital expenditure projects, which have increased their share to £92.2 million.

It’s expected that these resources will cover areas such as digital infrastructure, digital participation, digital public services, and the digital economy.

What digital initiatives have been introduced?  

The Budget makes a number of commitments to support digital change in Scotland, although, very few details are given about specific digital projects.

The main initiatives outlined in the report include:

  • Spending over £100 million to improve broadband services, as part of the £400 million Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) programme. It’s expected that by the end of 2015, 85% of premises will be connected to a next generation broadband network, rising to 95% by the end of 2017.
  • Establishing an ‘Alpha Fund’ to help improve the efficiency and quality of digital public services. It’s hoped that this can be achieved – like most digital transformation programmes – by developing common services that can be used across government.
  • Supporting the Digital Transformation Service to develop digital public services from a user perspective and to realise the benefits of digital technology.
  • Developing the National Records of Scotland’s (NRS) digital services, including progressing with the ‘Data Linkage Framework’ strategy, which is expected to deliver data research projects that benefit the public. The NRS will also be preparing for the next Census, in 2021, which will mostly be delivered digitally.

What other announcements may impact digital?

For the ninth consecutive year, the Scottish Government have continued with their manifesto commitment to freeze council taxes. Councillor Michael Cook, who is vice president of COSLA, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, has argued that Scottish Government cuts to local government revenues are “unprecedented”, and are coming at a time when local government are already facing massive pressures. He suggests that this could lead to job losses and changes to services.

In addition, the Scottish Government has chosen not to change the Income Tax rate for Scotland – a power recently devolved to Holyrood. Mr Swinney argues that this new power is limited, and any changes would go against the principle that taxation should be proportionate to the ability to pay.

Both of these decisions will have implications for the digital sector. For instance, companies that provide services to local government may find some new challenges as local government revenues have been cut by 3.5%.  It may mean that companies will have to further prove their value, as local government looks to reduce their costs or improve the services they provide. Yet, it could also bring opportunities, as the need for technical solutions that provide efficiencies has never been greater.

The decision not to raise Income Tax may also benefit Scotland’s digital sector. If Income Tax had risen in Scotland, recruitment might have become more challenging, or at least more expensive, as skilled staff might have been tempted by lower taxes elsewhere in the UK.

Final thoughts

The Budget has not provided any real surprises. Local government needs to make savings, and politically, increasing taxes would be difficult, especially with the Scottish Parliamentary elections next year.

Therefore, the digital sector needs to focus on addressing the challenges highlighted in the Budget. This includes providing creative, efficient, technological solutions that support the everyday needs of both central and local government.


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Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other articles on digital policy. 

 

Understanding the value of public money could be key to council tax reform in Scotland

This week saw the publication of a report by a cross party commission on the state of local government funding, specifically examining the council tax in Scotland. For many years the council tax has been declared as unfit for purpose by politicians in Holyrood. However little has actually been done in the way of reform. As things stand, following John Swinney’s budget announcement, council tax bills remain frozen for the 9th successive year.

The need for reform

The system has been  called regressive, ineffective, and anti-poor (among other things). But while most agree that the council tax in Scotland cannot continue in its current form, there is much disagreement about the new direction for the council tax, and about local government funding more widely.

The council tax freeze in Scotland has meant that in addition to budget cuts, councils have also been under pressure from reduced income. This is not to the advantage of the worst off, as some might assume. Instead, the uneven banding system means that while middle band payers spend 4% of their wages on council tax, those in the highest two bands only spend 2%

Houses-on-coins-by-Images-MoneyThe impact of the freeze

Despite the council tax only making up 2% of council income, it is estimated that the freeze has cost local government in Scotland more than £500m in the last year, and over £2bn since the freeze was introduced. That’s £2bn, commentators argue, which has not been spent on hospitals, schools, policing or community investment at a local level.

However a visible rise in tax bills while services are being cut back would be a difficult one to spin. As observed during a seminar I recently attended,  people feel council tax increases more acutely than other tax increases because they receive the bills through their door. Other taxes are less visible, or happen before the point of cost. VAT rises or stamp duty rises, for example, are not regarded with quite as much hostility by the general public as council tax rises.

At the same time, people don’t seem to realise what they are getting for their council tax, or how much public expenditure actually costs. This needs to change if politicians are going to be truly allowed to reform council tax and to replace it with any number of the other options outlined in the commission’s report.

Alternative options include:

  • a more equal income-based system, only partly based on house value
  • a more localised option, where local authorities are afforded the freedom of selecting numerous smaller local taxes, which would increase accountability and transparency of where the money is going
  • a re-investment model where income taxes are increased, but the value is redistributed to services within a person’s local area, so people know the money they are being taxed on is going directly local services.
  • cutting costs and reallocating tax fund distribution by relocating services, to reassess which services fall under the remit of local government and which should be taken back under national control and adjusting the money given to local government accordingly

Participative budgeting models have also been mooted, but how this would work in practice is not clear at the moment.

Discussion today, or dysfunction tomorrow

One thing is for sure: council tax needs to be reformed, and the report appears to suggest there are two choices:

  • discuss it openly and robustly now to come to a sensible conclusion with appropriate implementation frameworks and a timetable to transition; or
  • wait until local government is not financially functional and the choices are made out of necessity, as a quick fix, with short term goals and outcomes which potentially make the situation worse rather than better.

Value, cost, framing and how people view taxation will be key to these strategies.


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Budget 2015 – how does it tackle the housing crisis?

Budget

By Alan Gillies

1p off a pint of beer, 2p off cider and whisky, wine duty frozen… “a beer-soaked election budget”, according to the International Business Times. But of course there’s more to the Budget than tax cuts, even in the last Budget before the General Election.

One of the most pressing concerns of many commentators in the build up to the Budget was the housing ‘crisis’, with recent estimates suggesting that 245,000 homes a year need to be built in England alone, whereas only half of that number have been built in recent years.

So what’s been announced in the Budget in response?

The two headline announcements are a new Help to Buy ISA and more housing zones outside London – 20 zones compared to the 10 announced last June. While initial reaction to the Help to Buy ISA appears to be mixed, as it targets demand rather than supply, the new housing zones have been more warmly welcomed.

The government originally announced plans to create 30 housing zones on brownfield sites across the country in order to increase housing supply – 20 in London and 10 elsewhere. Local authorities would bid for investment funding, usually in the form of a loan with an appropriate interest rate applied in accordance with the state aid rules. In addition there is the opportunity to put forward an additional bid for a £5m ‘local development order’ incentive fund, to encourage bids from areas which can provide sites with outline planning permission to speed up the housebuilding process.

The first nine zones in London had already been announced on 20 February, which led to Peabody Housing Association reporting that it had increased the number of homes it plans to build from 700 to 3000 at two sites in Thamesmead. There were however suggestions from the Labour-led Hackney Council that the housing zone model is less appropriate for inner London boroughs because the challenges are more to do with making affordable housing viable than providing infrastructure.

Calls to encourage the release of more public sector land for housing have also been addressed in the Budget with the announcement that the government will implement a new ‘commercially-driven’ approach to land and property asset management across the central government estate. A new central body or bodies will own and manage central government property and land assets, which it is hoped will release land and property for productive use, “including building new homes”.

Further housing measures, already announced just prior to the Budget, included a Housing Finance Institute to address the skills and knowledge gap in delivering local authority housing, as recommended by a recent review of the local authority role in housing supply. Also measures to streamline the sales process for shared ownership properties in outright ownership and a wider review into shared ownership.

According to the Budget document itself, the new housing zones ‘could support up to 45,000 new homes’, so they are not going to solve the housing crisis by themselves. However the government argues that things are starting to move in the right direction, claiming that levels of planning approvals and housing starts are at 7-year highs.

Whether the effect of the housing measures announced in the Budget turn out to be a drop in the ocean or an important impetus to increasing supply to the levels required remains to be seen, with the president of RIBA already suggesting that “Whoever forms the next government must go much further and champion the long-term sustainable supply of high-quality new homes that people want to live in and communities will support”.

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The Autumn Statement 2014

Pound coin

By Alex Thomas

Chancellor George Osborne’s 2014 Autumn Statement was delivered at 12.30 GMT today in the House of Commons. The Autumn Statement is an opportunity for the Chancellor to update MPs on the Government’s plans for the economy based on the latest forecasts from the Independent Officer for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

As many predicted the chancellor committed to further tightening public finances within the statement. He went on to say that if the Conservatives remain in government after the May General Election there will be substantial savings in public spending. Continue reading

‘Workshop of the world’ … Is British manufacturing a thing of the past?

Image of old industrial plant.

Image: Till Krech via Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.

By Steven McGinty

In the 19th century, Britain was heralded as the ‘workshop of the world’, producing everything from locomotives to extraordinary handicrafts. By the 20th century, the United States was the predominant manufacturing power, but Britain had become a specialist in manufacturing.  In recent history, economic growth has been led by the service sector, particularly from financial services in the City of London.

This change in the economy has led to a lot of debate. In fact, this was cited as one of the main drivers of inequality by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) at a recent seminar I attended. However, does this mean Britain should return to its industrial roots, or should it focus on the provision of services, which has been seen as key to recent economic successes?

The Chancellor, George Osborne, certainly thinks there’s a place for manufacturing. In March 2014, he emphasised that his Budget was focused on boosting UK manufacturing and rebalancing the economy across the regions. The Budget included some high profiles measures, including the introduction of £7 billion of funding to cut energy bills for manufacturers, as well as compensation of £1 billion for energy intensive manufacturers.

A recent House of Commons Library statistical release provides some interesting insights into the UK manufacturing sector. It reports that economic output has decreased from 30% in the 1970s to 10% in 2012 and that manufacturing was badly affected during the recession, falling 14.5% between the first quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of 2009. The manufacturing workforce has also reduced from 5.6 million in 1982 to 2.6 million in 2014.

However, an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report provides some signs of optimism. It found that, since 1948, productivity in the manufacturing sector has increased gradually by 2.8% each year, compared to 1.4% in the service sector. The report suggests that the UK manufacturing sector has benefited more from information and communications technology (ICT) than the services sector and the more integrated global economy.

These factors have contributed to a shift from low-value manufacturing, where the focus was on low costs and low skilled workers, to high-value manufacturing, where workers provide value to the production process with their knowledge and expertise.

Interesting trends have also started to develop. For instance, Civitas has produced a report into ‘onshoring’ or ‘reshoring’, a practice that involves firms bringing back production that they had previously sent overseas. Firms are taking this approach for a number of reasons, some of which are related to the difficulties of offshoring such as language barriers, whereas others are looking more at the positives of domestic production, such as improved quality control, as well as an increase in a brand’s appeal by its connection to having products manufactured in countries such as the UK. Examples of onshoring including General Motors, who are currently investing £125 million in a domestic supply chain in the UK.

The report also highlighted that there are still barriers to onshoring. For example, less flexible workforces, although this is deemed to be changing in the United States as trade unions are becoming more flexible.

We have also seen the rise of ‘phoenix industries’. These are groups of firms that use similar technologies and have emerged in traditional industrial areas, typically developing sophisticated components for use in a range of industries. This idea was discussed in a recent article in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. It focused on a case study of the West Midlands, an area which has been seen as the ‘heartland’ of the automotive industry.  The article emphasised the importance of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), the niche/luxury car manufacturer, for providing opportunities for smaller more innovative companies in their supply chain. Yet, the article also highlights that getting access to funding is key for these companies to develop their prototypes. This lack of funding for small firms was identified as a weakness of the UK sector.

So, is British manufacturing a thing of the past? The answer is most likely no. However, the shape of the manufacturing industry and the role it has to play as part of the overall economy has still to be determined. This will depend on a number of factors including future government policy, particularly addressing issues such as access to capital and shortages of skills, as well as the overall global economy, most notably the ability of the Eurozone to recover from its current economic downturn.


 

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Idox Budget 2014 Summary

Pound coin

Idox Policyfinder Team

Presented to Parliament by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Budget 2014 sets out the next steps in the Government’s long-term economic plan. The Government believes this Budget not only sets out further action to secure the recovery and build a resilient economy, but also the most radical reforms to saving for a generation, providing security for families to plan for their future.  Continue reading