Chairman’s Update to DCN members – December 2020

Cllr John Fuller OBE, Chairman, District Councils’ Network

Dear colleagues,

What a year it has been. It has been an unprecedent time for our councils, and our communities. Our lives have been flipped upside down since we were together at February’s DCN Conference.

You must be proud in how you have led, how your staff have delivered, and how your communities have responded. And we must be proud as a sector. Districts have represented the best of public services, standing up the humanitarian effort, casting lifelines to businesses, and keeping vital doorstep services moving for the 20 million people across our villages, towns and cities.

Districts have delivered. We have demonstrated both innovation and collaboration, strategic leadership and trusted delivery – and all at pace. We have proved that services rooted in community, embedded in the fabric of local places, and connected into every business, have been essential in responding to the pandemic, and will be just as important in driving recovery.

And while 2021 brings some hope of normality, there will be choppy waters too. The District Councils’ Network will continue to help echo your voice across Government, making the case for the change you need to help deliver for your communities.

Just as you have adapted, so has the DCN. Moving to regular online calls with you, over 20 sessions bringing notable speakers into your offices (or living rooms!); deepening our relationship with Ministers and officials to offer them advice at pace; and making sure the district voice is heard in the right zoom-rooms at the right time.

Throughout it all, our Executive has met fortnightly, and Chief Executive Group weekly.

In this short bulletin, we’ve summarised some headlines from the year and what is coming up in 2021. While there have been some lobbying wins – across finance, homelessness, planning, and local government reform – there is still so much more to do. Please keep telling us how we can help, what more we can do, how we can adapt.

And for more information on the work we do, please visit us at https://districtcouncils.info/  or contact the team at dcn@local.gov.uk.

Finally we would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a relaxing Christmas break – one that is truly well deserved after everything that has been thrown our way this year.

Devolution and reform

Despite the immense challenges dealing with the pandemic, some in central and local government have sought to pursue local government reform. We have led the case for retaining local government, pushing a range of evidenced arguments to Government, to Parliamentarians directly and through our APPG, the press and our partners.

For instance Power in Place set out the need for devolution to empower districts to deliver the recovery, Bigger is not Better challenged poor arguments for reform into county unitary councils, Size Doesn’t Matter – jointly supported with our Unitary Council Network colleagues – provided a pragmatic route forward for devolution, and Transformation in Localities looked at how to build on districts strengths. We hope this material is useful for your local discussions.

Our messages were widely reported across the trade press, and in the nationals for instance in the BBC and the Times. While we are pleased that the Government’s ambitions for reform in many areas were dropped, we are disappointed that the process in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset is continuing despite the unprecedented national crisis.

With the Devolution White Paper rumoured for later in 2021, we will continue to champion district voice in this debate and are working on plans at the moment.

Sustainable Finance

District finances have been under unique pressure across the pandemic. We’ve led the charge to have our position and recommendations recognised by Ministers and officials. We’ve given written and oral evidence to the HCLG inquiries, engaged Parliamentarians, commissioned research, and pushed warnings through the press, for instance on BBC and BBC online.

Our representations have helped achieve a range of support measures, including a roll-over of New Homes Bonus for a further year, a decision not to reset business rates for 2021/22, and schemes to compensate for loss of income from sales, fees and charges, and from lost business rates and council tax.

Whilst welcoming some measures, we know it is not nearly enough and continue to emphasise this, and the priority need for longer term financial stability and for greater flexibility. We will continue to make this point into 2021 as wider local government finance reforms are revisited – New Homes Bonus, Fair Funding Review, Business rates and more.

Stronger Economies

Districts are critical to local economies. We have been championing this at the centre of Government, helping DBEIS Ministers and officials towards shaping workable business grant schemes, putting districts at the centre of efforts to re-open high streets and businesses safely, and running a campaign pushing our position on controversial proposals for planning reform.

We are pleased that the Government has listened to our concerns around the proposed changes to the Standard Method, responding to our messages through to Ministers and officials directly, and with Parliamentarians and the public through briefings and press, for instance covered in the Evening StandardIndependent and Mirror. And we’ve welcomed additional funding for districts to support high street re-opening, and the Government’s backing of districts to deliver grants to businesses.

Looking ahead to 2021 we will continue to engage with the wider proposals within the Planning White Paper to help empower a well-resourced locally led planning system. We will continue to work to ensure districts can play a lead role in the future of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, Levelling up fund, housing infrastructure funding, high street funding and more.

Enhancing Quality of Life

The role of exercise and activity to our well-being was put into sharp focus by the pandemic, with people being told to exercise daily. We quickly raised the critical plight of our leisure centres with Ministers and officials, working with you to develop the first and only financial evidence base calling for additional funding to the sector, raising public attention to the issue through the coverage in PoliticsHome and the Telegraph.

Throughout our engagement with Government on the development of the £100 million scheme we have emphasised that it is not sufficient, and that it should be distributed as simply and quickly as possible. We will continue to make this case into 2021, as part of wider case for enabling the role of district services in leading good health.

We have championed local heroes continuing to collect waste throughout the pandemic, calling on the public to be responsible with their household waste (Sky and Guardian) and with their PPE waste (Telegraph).

The Government is likely to press ahead with waste reforms in 2021, we’re expecting to respond to detailed consultations on proposed changes to consistency, enhanced producer responsibility, and the deposit return scheme

Better Lives

Districts provide the local safety net for so many families in hardship. We have continued to push for districts to have the tools to help those most vulnerable, ‘everyone-in’ has proven what is possible and we were the first to warn of increases in homeless acceptances, our campaign was widely covered by BBCBBC online and the Observer, successfully campaigning for extensions to the eviction ban.

We have pushed for help for people on low incomes to self-isolate, with our campaign widely covered in the Sun and the Times. Meanwhile we have ensured district officers are working with Government on designing the T&T self-isolating support payment scheme so that it is workable. We continue to press for a lead role for districts schemes supporting people in hardship, including in those cases where funding allocations have gone to county councils.

Looking ahead into 2021, we will look to focus on how to prevent homelessness. Including looking at the welfare, employment and skills policy and funding, and how districts can shape public services locally to support families through a difficult economic period.

DCN Annual Conference

We are pleased to confirm that we are starting to plan for an in-person conference for 16 – 18 June 2021, at Chesford Grange, Kenilworth.

We will take a final decision on whether or not to progress based on the public health situation nearer the time. Look out for more details coming in the new year, but in the meantime please hold in your diary!