Autonomy fenced in

It might be expected that those in local government who argue for
more freedom to spend according to local needs would be pleased by
the reduction in ring-fencing in this year’s local government
settlement, as well as by the desperately needed extra money for
safeguarding children.

But there are two problems with ring-fencing and national targets
and this settlement actually exacerbates one of these.

The first problem, one of principle, is that both ring-fencing and
nationally set priorities erode the autonomy of local government.
Any perception by voters that local votes can influence important
local decisions is undermined. Apathy increases, which gnaws at the
very roots of local government. Unless the long-term decline of
local government can be reversed, by a genuine commitment to local
autonomy on the part of central government, our communities will
suffer for it – and so will the government’s plans, including those
in the children’s green paper.

The second problem – a practical one – is that ring-fencing
reinforces the national political priorities of the moment, not
long-term local (or national) needs. This is where this year’s
settlement gives serious cause for concern.

Charles Clarke’s “pupil guarantee” rigidly frames education
expenditure in terms of how much should be spent per child. This
draconian combination of ring-fencing and target-setting will
attract resources like a magnet. Meanwhile, the ring-fences for
carers and for a range of strategies for developing a professional
social care workforce have been removed.

Yet a professional and highly trained workforce, across all
sectors, is a cornerstone of government policy in every area of
social care. And we know carers are still not getting what they are
entitled to, despite legislation and years of pressure from

It is important to continue to argue forcefully for greater
autonomy for local government. But it must be created across the
full range of services, strategically – not piecemeal according to
the competing whims of ministers. Otherwise, it’s not autonomy at
all. It just makes councils’ balancing act even harder.

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