Here’s why councils should get a share of the government’s NHS “birthday present”

Happy birthday? What exactly is so happy about it? Image: Getty.

Every day, a new story emerges about the spiralling financial crisis in local government. If it isn’t a new council announcing mammoth cuts to simply stay afloat, it’s new data revealing how a vital local service is facing meltdown.

The government, however, seems uninterested. Extra funding is going in only one direction – towards the NHS in the form of the £20.5bn “birthday present” announced by the Prime Minister in June.

One day, students of public finance will study this as an example of policy-making at its most irrational. The £20.5bn was announced as a response to the rapidly rising demand, which is stretching NHS services to snapping point. But if councils are left to fall apart that demand will only rise further and faster.

This is because councils do the things that keep people from bothering the NHS in the first place. They make sure the elderly and people with disabilities are cared for. Councils keep roads, town centres and businesses safe and clean. Their public health teams educate local communities about how to stay well. They expend a great effort on steering troubled children away from drugs, self-harm and mental illness.

Maybe more fundamentally, councils are tasked with providing the housing and local business investment that gives people the decent homes and jobs that all research shows is vital to better physical and mental health.


So far, the government has avoided confrontation with the absurdity of its position by claiming that the problems facing councils are all the result of local mismanagement. Northamptonshire, the first council to effectively declare bankruptcy in decades, has been subjected to a convoluted inquiry and structural re-organisation in an effort to pin the blame on local leaders.

But as the number of councils declaring themselves to be in severe financial straits has grown over the last few weeks, the government’s line is looking increasingly detached from reality. The conclusion that the real cause of the crisis is the 50 per cent cut in government funding councils have endured since 2010 is becoming unavoidable.

No doubt the Treasury’s next move will be to shift money around within the overall budget for councils to bail out those facing immediate difficulties. There is an obvious opportunity to do this given a review on how council funding is allocated will report very soon.

The government may buy some short-term respite by shifting funds to struggling councils. But if that comes at the expense of withdrawing even more funds from other councils then the problems will only re-emerge elsewhere.

The chancellor could avoid these undignified and self-defeating manoeuvres easily: spread the £20.5bn of love directed at the NHS more widely. If that money is genuinely to be used as a response to rising demand then sharing it with local government makes far greater sense than blowing it all on the health service.

How much would need to be shared? The Local Government Association has estimated that councils need an extra £7.8bn just to keep services at their current rather threadbare level over coming years. But there is more to it than that.

Such significant funding shared between the NHS and councils could, if positioned right, enable a major shift towards a system built around preventing people getting ill in the first place rather than being treated once they do. A great partnership between the two biggest providers of public services in the country to keep people healthy and out of hospital: the benefits to the economy, the public finances and simple well-being could be huge.

Adam Lent is director of the New Local Government Network. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman

 
 
 
 

How can cities protect common green space for the future?

Newcastle Town Moor. Image: Chabe01/Wikimedia Commons.

Urban green space comes in a variety of forms – parks, allotments, gardens, ‘strays’ to mention just a few. One of the most iconic is the urban “common” – these are often extensive tracts of green space in or adjacent to large urban areas that provide publicly accountable, open, green, spaces vital for culture, health, wellbeing and biodiversity in the metropolitan context. Examples include Epping Forest and Wimbledon common in London, Town Moor in Newcastle, Mousehold Heath in Norwich, or Clifton Downs in Bristol.

The term “common” creates in the public consciousness notions of communal ownership, control and use. In fact, this is often a misconception. Most urban “commons” are not community-owned assets, and many have different legal identities, and differing degrees of legal protection and security. These are often the result of a history of different political, social and economic forces shaping land use in each metropolitan context. Epping Forest and Town Moor in Newcastle are, for example, protected by Acts of Parliament. Clifton Down in Bristol is a “traditional” common registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965, which guarantees its status as common land.

Other areas commonly regarded by the public as commons are in actual fact simply urban green space that is preserved by some lesser legal protection - for example, through the planning system, which may designate them as green space or as conservation areas within the local development plan. But plans can change, and much green space is lost to development annually.

Indeed, in the age of austerity, local authorities have been driven to sell much green space that they themselves own to raise funds to provide front line local services, like schools and social care. In this context, true urban commons – those that have the legal status of common land – are extremely precious community assets, in that they are protected from development and preserved for future generations.

But do we value them highly enough? Do we appreciate their importance in shaping our community’s consciousness of its own identity and history? Do we use them to the full as recreational open spaces and if not, how can we champion our urban commons and develop new ways to engage the urban public more fully in their use, management and stewardship?   


A new interdisciplinary 3-year project (“Wastes and Strays”) involving academics from Newcastle University, Exeter University, Sheffield University and Brighton University will address many of these issues. The project will explore the complex social and political history of the urban common, as well as their legal and cultural status today, and in doing so devise tools and methods of negotiation, inclusivity and creativity to inform their future.

The project will make in-depth studies of four iconic urban commons: Town Moor, Newcastle; Valley Gardens, Brighton; Mousehold Heath, Norwich; and Clifton Down, Bristol. It will look at the multiple, negotiated historic uses and legal origins of the common in each case, and its contemporary meaning, popular perception, biodiversity and public use.

One strand of the research is closely focussed to encouraging the more extensive use of urban commons as vital green space for recreation and other community uses, important for mental and physical wellbeing. It will be looking to develop new strategies for community engagement with the urban commons as community assets and will work in partnership with local communities and relevant stakeholder groups to generate ideas for the future of urban commons, in the spirit of their negotiated pasts.

The big idea is to generate a multifaceted definition of the urban common to provide a robust base for education initiatives and future public policy guidance, informing their development and use as a diverse cultural and ecological space.

For hundreds of years, these unique, open spaces have played a varied, but important, role in the individual stories of our towns and cities. We need to develop new and imaginative ways to use them and foster a greater sense of community involvement if we are to preserve them for future generations.

Chris Rodgers is a professor of Law at Newcastle University.