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Downtown take on councils’ crisis

By Jim Hancock

By Jim Hancock

MPs say the Town Hall financial crisis is out of control. Jim reports on that, and a Downtown event which shows that councils and business increasingly want to work together for regeneration.

The financial crisis hitting Town Halls is out of control. That is the view of the Commons Levelling Up Committee. £4bn is needed to deal with the spiralling cost of adult care, child protection and homelessness. Four councils have gone bust in the last year and MPs think well run ones will follow soon. And it’s not just about the government pumping in more money, (£600m was given as an emergency measure last week) the council tax system based on 1991 prices needs an urgent review. Expensive homeowners pay less than less valuable homes such that Buckingham Palace pays less than a Blackpool semi. A situation ripe for a bold move by Starmer Labour but don’t hold your breath.

I’ve been covering stories about Town Hall spending problems all my life, and that’s the problem. People think they’ve heard it all before. Encouraged by a lazy media, which can’t be bothered to learn the complexities of local government, voters think its all because Chief Executives are paid too much, or councillors are claiming too many expenses. These are trivial sums when set against the cost of adult care for instance.

But councils are about much more than the important services they deliver. They can be the focal point for economic growth and that was the theme of a very well attended Downtown reception held at Westminster this week. Business representatives, top council officers, shadow ministers and councillors from Leeds and Manchester, heard our CEO Frank McKenna introduce the event by saying that the private sector needed to step up to support councils.

Bev Craig is now firmly established as the successor to Sir Richard Leese as the leader of Manchester Council. She gave a confident speech about a city with a rapidly growing population and plans for 36,000 houses. She decried the government’s system of pitching one city against another for funds. She wanted a deal with Whitehall that would lead to Manchester being a net contributor to the national economy.

James Lewis had travelled the thirty miles from Leeds but said the time it had taken pointed to one of the major obstacles to the two cities realising their joint potential. Nevertheless the 253 hectare South Bank development to extend the city centre showed the intent of the council. Leeds MP Hilary Benn followed up saying firms wanted a clear framework and a council it could trust. He acknowledged that the total number of people in manufacturing had declined but a recent visit to a Hunslet plant had convinced him we were still making things the world wanted.

The Shadow Business Secretary, Johnny Reynolds, dared to venture into the verboten subject of our relations with the EU. He declared that a long term settlement would be needed. He attacked the government’s approach to development saying pots of money were announced and then a search began on how to spend it. Labour would want councils to prepare sites ready for investment.

Muse were one of the valued sponsors of the day and James Pitt from Muse Places listed the problems facing the country ranging from power and flooding to housing and ev charging points. He joined the Leeds Chief Executive Tom Riordan in calling for a new devolution strategy. Another one for you Kier! Riordan also claimed planning delays weren’t caused by councils but the stop/start approach of governments.

GALLOWAY FEARS

I referred last week to the surprising speed with which Labour was selecting its candidate for the Rochdale following the sad death of Sir Tony Lloyd.

Things have moved quickly with Azhar Ali, the Lancashire Council Labour Group leader, being chosen for the election which will take place at the end of the month.

The word at Westminster is that Labour fears Workers Party candidate George Galloway might gain momentum with a longer campaign based on “teaching Labour a lesson on Gaza”.

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