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Review of the year 2013
Local Government Chronicle – 12 December 2013

Like Christmas toys removed from their rightful owners by overbearing older relations, local government's powers in 2013 in theory glittered with attractive possibilities. But in practice endless impediments were placed in the way of councils' ability to play with them as they wished. Someone was always at hand to tell councils "no, that's not nice, stop it", writes Mark Smulian.

Councils would rather have money and independence this festive season than gifts whose use is always restricted by their elders and betters.

This was 2013, a year some may yet look back on as a mini golden age when the worst of the cuts that started in 2010 had been survived relatively unscathed and before the now widely predicted horrors looming for 2015-16.

January

Taking a temporary break from criticising councils' "excessive" reserves, local government minister Brandon Lewis began the year by attacking payoffs to chief executives as "lacking respect for the public purse".

By unhappy coincidence for him, departing civil servants had been paid off even more munificently.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles had made a festive gift to councils of a booklet called 50 Ways To Save after a settlement that saw some suffer grant cuts of 15%. "Insulting" was among the politer responses.

Tower Hamlets LBC became a test case for the sector's new mechanism for solving its own problems when it was left almost devoid of senior managers.

Chief executive Kevin Lavery left Cornwall Council for New Zealand, complaining that anyone in the UK who was paid more than the prime minister was now ridiculed.

Not for the last time in public finance decisions, the south did better than the north, this time in public heath funding.

February

Councils' descent into responsibility without power in education continued with education secretary Michael Gove awarding himself the right to send Ofsted into school improvement services.

Sadly, local government was unable to order inspectors into the DCLG where a survey found a mere 20% of staff were proud to work for it.

After 30 Conservative council leaders issued a letter about a "fractious relationship" with ministers, Mr Pickles declared that he "loved local government". Just imagine if he hated it.

Many councils announced plans to resume housebuilding this year, making use of new freedoms, only to discover that welfare reform was set to suck up most of the cash needed.

Taunton Deane BC agreed to rescue its financially stricken neighbour West Somerset DC, kicking off a stately minuet that would take eight months.

A fund was launched to support "transformational" shared services projects, a term, conveniently for ministers, that could mean almost anything.

March

A warning came from the New Local Government Network about the financial viability of small districts, a theme that would recur during the year.

LGC's Freedom of Information enquiry elicited that Brent LBC was paying interim chief executive Christine Gilbert through a private company just after a select committee attacked the sector over this practice.

As council job losses rose, someone at least was creating vacancies. The Home Builders Federation announced recruitment of specialists to challenge councils' housing plans.

Lewisham LBC successfully took legal action against health secretary Jeremy Hunt over closure of local services, though the leader of a review of NHS reconfiguration warned councils they would need "more convincing" evidence to prevent hospital closures.

Auditors ruled some senior pay rises at Caerphilly CBC unlawful, instigating a process that led to police involvement.

Former older people's 'tsar' David Oliver said the idea that large numbers of hospital admissions for elderly people were preventable by better social care was "la la land".

Mid Devon DC made national newspapers for a short-lived campaign to banish apostrophes from its signs.

Greenwich RBC was declared LGC's Council of the Year and Forest of Dean DC the Most Improved Council.

April

"England became more centralised and local taxation was made permanently toxic," was LGC commentator Tony Travers' pithy summary of the career of Baroness Thatcher, who died.

Concerns about whether 'digital by default' would mean 'utter disaster' for Universal Credit saw the government row back on this approach as the troublesome reform lumbered on.

Some staff and services returned to Somerset CC from its shared services joint venture Southwest One after the latter sued the former over unpaid fees in an unusual example of partnership working.

The Work Programme joined the long list of things councils felt they could run better than Whitehall after private providers failed to get enough people into work.

Councils became inventive at beating the 'bedroom tax' with Greenwich giving affected tenants jobs and Nottingham and Leeds city councils redesignating two bedroom homes as single bedroom ones, to the ire of ministers.

Decentralisation went with Greg Clark, the DCLG admitted, ditching the former minister's commitment to regular assessments of Whitehall's activity on devolution.

May

It was election time for England's counties and a few other places, which saw the UK Independence Party make large gains from a low base, mainly along the east coast. Labour recovered Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and while nine counties ended up no overall control the rest stayed blue.

UKIP boasted that its groups would be like "independents on steroids" a phrase that must have conjured some troubling mental images.

LGC research found scant evidence in the election results for Mr Pickles' prediction that those that raised council tax would be "kicked in the ballot box" or indeed anywhere else.

Barnet LBC won a legal challenge to its mass services outsourcing, one of few such plans to survive local opposition.

Poacher? Gamekeeper? Former Croydon LBC chief executive Jon Rouse, now a Department of Health director general, warned sternly against councils diverging social care funds from the NHS to any other purpose.

June

Public Health England announced it would publish a league table of premature deaths to permit comparison of councils' performance in this new responsibility. This was one league no one would wish to top.

Forest of Dean and Stroud DCs took action against premature deaths among badgers by banning culling on their land.

'Chiefless' Wiltshire decided on a perpetual revolving door by rotating the position of head of paid service among three people.

The Welsh Assembly set up a panel to decide on local authority chief executives' pay.

Former Rochdale MBC chief executive Roger Ellis was urged by a parliamentary committee to repay his redundancy money as it thought the council had been "inexcusably slow" to spot a child grooming scandal.

After some months of sabre rattling, Unison members accepted the 1% pay offer from employers.

July

LGA chair Sir Merrick Cockell warned its conference that further cuts would put councils' future in jeopardy and called for further extensive devolution as suggested in the LGA's Rewiring Public Services report.

This called for the creation of 'local treasuries', which would handle funds for all main public sector spending routes in each area.

The LGA also said this approach would help solve the 'England question' - how to devolve there to the extent seen in the rest of the UK. Mr Pickles quickly rejected it, though the LGA continues to press the arguments in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

A government decision to divert a third of the New Homes Bonus to local enterprise partnerships caused fury and bafflement. This was an incentive giving money to councils that allowed housebuilding. Now if they allow housebuilding someone else somewhere else gets the money. So not joined-up government that it was later rescinded.

The Public Safety Charitable Trust - which blared unsolicited crime fighting messages to Bluetooth users from empty buildings - was wound up by the courts as a scam designed to avoid business rates. Councils were unlikely though to recover the millions of pounds lost.

August

Early indications showed that council funding allocations could fall by up to 16% by 2015-16, threatening some with a 'doom scenario'.

Lancashire CC suspended chief executive Phil Halsall over a fleet vehicle contract. He later left and police were asked to examine related matters.

The county was also attacked by Public Health England for putting a social worker in charge of public health.

Birmingham City Council admitted its troubled children's service was "near the exit of the last chance saloon" - just by the swinging doors, presumably - as its new interim director said the service was unsafe and Mr Gove stepped up pressure on the council.

LGC research found 20% of councils were failing to finance work on tackling child obesity from their public health budgets, with the bulk being devoted to sexual health and substance abuse.

September

Ofsted inspectors were creating a "climate of fear", children's services directors said, with a "blame and shame" culture that made it hard to attract skilled people for leadership roles when they faced such denigration.

Incoming Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy chief executive Rob Whiteman said the organisation would focus its work on community budgets and public service integration.

Mr Pickles attacked councils for "hoardings billions in their piggy banks" of reserves, just as he did in January and December 2012 and again in August and November this year.

Just as well he went into politics rather than vinyl record manufacture - they would surely all have stuck.

In a curious example of financial prudence, he spent 90,000 in legal fees unsuccessfully trying to save 30 by ending the check-off of trade union subscriptions among DCLG staff.

Staff at embattled Wirral MBC were told there would be no pay rise unless unions proposed 500,000 of acceptable savings in staff costs. They didn't. There wasn't.

Lib Dem local government minister Don Foster criticised Mr Pickles for micromanagement by telling councils how to manage bin collections and parking - lesemajesty possibly motivated by the knowledge that he was soon off to a new job.

October

"Let them sell assets" was local government minister Brandon Lewis's message to cashstrapped councils at the Conservative party conference, as he did his renowned Marie Antoinette impersonation.

Trade unions said they would consider lodging a 15.5% pay claim for 2014-15, which they described in a model of understatement as "very ambitious".

Welsh councils, already culled from several dozen to a mere 22 in the mid-1990s, were warned that a review of public services could see their number shrink yet further.

Having signalled that he favoured localisation of the NHS, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said he didn't want "unbridled localism". 'Bridled', as ever with national politicians, was perfectly fine though.

Public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge, now almost as feared an interrogator as Jeremy Paxman, pledged to "haul in" councils for rigorous scrutiny after abolition of the Audit Commission, taking one of the few steps possible to engender warm nostalgia for the dying quango.

November

Joined-up government time again, with threats to throw councils off the Public Services Network because of the Cabinet Office's obsession with security, so hampering collaboration with central government.

It said government data could leak, but revelations elsewhere showed the Americans knew it all anyway.

It's not every day that 10 chief executive jobs are advertised at six figure salaries but they were sought for Northern Ireland's new councils, which will replace the 26 largely powerless existing ones.

The Northern Ireland Local Government Association then called for subcommittee meetings to remain private on the puzzling grounds that opening them to the public would "damage democracy".

Taunton Deane and West Somerset finally agreed their sharing but not before someone troubled to concoct a fake letter attributing low political motives to the two leaders.

Ignoring Mr Pickles' fulminations, three-quarters of county councils said they planned tax rises to cope with cuts.

After three administrations in eight months the music stopped with the Conservatives running Harrow LBC, who promptly deleted chief executive Michael Lockwood's post.

The LGC confidence survey found greater optimism about the economy but pessimism on services. Fully 99% of senior officers thought their council was not yet over the worst of cuts, and 72% thought adult social care would not be protected.

The Audit Commission found metropolitan councils were at greatest risk of failing to deliver their plans because they were disproportionately dependent on shrinking grants.

December

With Blaby DC stripped of planning powers for deciding major applications too slowly, Conservative leader Ernie White addressed an insulting letter to DCLG ministers who he said inhabited "a bizarre world".

Spending watchdog the National Audit Office warned that the target to 'turn around' 120,000 troubled families could be missed because of large variations in councils' performance.

John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, told council pension funds to stop investing in firms involved in tobacco, alcohol, payday loans and gambling, a step that might tax investment managers' ingenuity yet further.

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin told the LGA that local government should stop blaming Treasury budget cuts for unrepaired potholes, and in return he'd stop blaming councils' sloth.

Accountants Grant Thornton ended 2013 with the unfestive prediction that councils could reach a financial tipping point in 2015-16, forcing them into structural reorganisations.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!