Sefton Council – Going bust?

Sefton Council Logo

The Liverpool Echo has the article on its website – see link below:-

www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/merseyside-council-faces-27m-black-18487709

Bootle Town Hall

For as long as anyone involved in local politics can probably remember local authorities have shouted from the roof tops at every government of every colour that they don’t understand them and the pressures they are under. Usually and indeed during every one of my 15 years as a Sefton Borough councillor the underlying cause of this shouting was associated with the ever spiraling cost of adult social care and children in care. This time the causes are very different but like the ever present and rising costs of social care the effect will be similar across many if not all local authorities. Indeed, this has led the Local Government Association to to say that local authorities will go bust, which if I recall correctly, is actually illegal as they are not permitted to run deficit budgets.

The underlying problem is that local authorities for the most part are actually just agents for the delivery of government prescribed services. They have many statutory duties to do this that and the other although the level/standard to which they do these functions is often not prescribed so one local authority will major on one thing but another will put more effort into another etc. etc.

There’s surprisingly little room for maneuver and that’s why party political changes within local authorities only see changes at the margins, over 90% of the policies/spending won’t and don’t change with differing political council leaderships.

But returning to Sefton, that most odd of virtually all local authorities from a geographical perspective, is it doing the best that it can during the pandemic? Well that’s a difficult question to answer as like all one-party states and governments it will only tell you what it wants to tell you and what it has no choice but to tell you. But here are my thoughts.

Sefton is far too centralised with virtually everything being controlled and directed from Bootle Town Hall via a small political elite in the every bottom corner of this vast Borough. It has dismantled all the previous community related infrastructure for delivery of services to the extent that it has gone back to a ‘one size fits all’ at best. You could say a typical old socialist model of local government.

The buying of Bootle Strand Shopping Centre for a huge amount of money a couple of years back was not only a financial risk to the whole Borough and it’s Council tax payers (should the deal go wrong) but it also defined where the local authority’s priorities were i.e. Bootle, Bootle and Bootle. There are significant fears that this particular chicken could be coming home to roost soon as the value of that retail property falls.

Sefton is slow to react and ponderous and it’s always had a tendency to be so. I suppose this relates very much to its centralised nature and to me it has often seemed unwilling to innovate in a meaningful way. When it did innovate it was at a community level but as I say that level has been all but snuffed out.

I don’t don’t doubt that Sefton, like many local authorities, is in very deep financial trouble as a consequence of the pandemic on top of austerity. Whether it could have been in even a slightly better position if it were run differently is the question no one can really answer. Having said that those of us who are advocates of decentralised and more transparent local government may well say it probably could be better placed if only at the margins.

That the slow moving and ponderous oil tanker which is Sefton Council will continue and will survive one way or another is all but a given. However, with its finances badly holed at the waterline and it being permanently moored at Bootle Docks it will also continue to fail to deliver the kind of modern day services its diverse communities require, except that is for its generally much appreciated domestic waste and recycling doorstep collections.

Sefton Borough – It lacks balance

In the light of recent local Conservative claims that all of Southport’s money is being spent in Bootle (a rather coarse popularist approach which tries to pinch more sophisticated Lib Dem clothes) I thought I would revisit my piece on this matter from 2015 – you can access that blog via the link below:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2015/03/28/borough-of-sefton-what-a-mixture-of-diverse-communities-that-have-little-common-with-each-other/

Mm well, my views have not changed and I still think that Sefton is a geographically bizarre Borough and that this situation can only be changed for the better by looking at West Lancashire Borough at the same time.

West Lancashire is not a unitary authority its a District Council within a County so all its major services are provided by Lancashire County Council – Highways, Social Services etc. And thereby hangs the major problem to changing local government boundaries locally – It’s not comparing like with like. West Lancs, for example, is only an Associate member of Liverpool City Region so it can’t really sit at the same table as the big boys and girls. That’s a problem as it means that West Lancs finds it hard to have much of an influence and it means the boundary between it and Sefton/The Liverpool City Region is more like a barrier to progress all round.

Do you remember when John Prescott was all-powerful in the Blair Government years and he came up with a plan to split West Lancs in half putting one half into Wigan Metropolitan Borough and one half into Sefton Borough? Yes, there were significant issues about where the splitting boundary should be but frankly, it was not a bad plan it just needed fleshing out and developing. What actually happened was that it fell off the table and was not pursued at all. The effect has been to keep West Lancs in a weak position within Lancashire (where it has always struggled to make its voice heard) and it, in effect, stopped Sefton Borough being able to review it’s own somewhat bizarre geography.

My personal view is that until local government, in general, is reorganised to make all councils unitary i.e. getting rid of the outdated split between District and County Councils in the shire counties (thereby finding a fix for out on a limb West Lancs) then fixing Sefton will be very difficult indeed.

That the Lib Dems and before them the former Liberal Party has been leading the charge to fix Sefton’s bizarre geography ever since 1974 is a given but what about the oft-made claims that one part of the Borough is subsidising another? Does this argument have any basis in fact? It’s probably true of all council areas where there’s a part or parts of it which are poorer and therefore more disadvantaged that council expenditure has traditionally been higher in the poorer communities to try to pull those areas up and support the social/community infrastructure. So in Sefton, the poorer areas are obviously significant parts of Bootle but also parts of Southport. Yes, Southport clearly has it’s affluent areas but like most UK seaside towns it has its fair share of poorer districts too with all the social, low paid seasonal work and housing issues that go with seaside towns.

The problem with poorer areas though in local government finance terms is not just where the money is spent but how it is raised. By this, I mean that in poorer areas there are far more Band A properties in Council tax speak. This means they generate less income for the Council running the area. Merseyside, in general, suffers from this problem and it means that Councils can’t raise anything like the amount of Council tax that more affluent areas of England can.

Austerity, as it’s been applied to local government finance, has had the effect of making poorer council areas poorer because they have become more reliant on the Council tax they can raise locally rather than on government grants which used top up/prop up their services. This is probably the basis of some saying that community ‘X’ is having its money spent in community ‘Y’ and on a crude popularist level there’s a case to hear where you have a council area with wealth in some parts but poverty in others. Put it this way, if you have a council area where 50% of it is affluent and 50% is poor then the effect will be (if you run your council services at the same level across the borough) that the affluent areas will be subsidising the poorer areas.

The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s not just about where a council spends its money, which may well be unbalanced across its area, but its’ also about how it raises the money that it spends too. OK, I’ve simplified the case for illustrative purposes but I hope you get my drift.

The bottom line is that with Council tax being a property based tax as opposed to one that is based on the ability to pay then such problems will always be the case. And of course, it is why Liberals and Lib Dems have consistently argued for a Local Income tax to replace Council tax ever since Council tax was introduced as a quick fix following the Poll Tax troubles of the 1980s. Both Conservatives and Labour oppose a fairer local taxation system based on the ability to pay and want to keep our property value based tax.

So you could say and indeed I do say that Sefton as a Borough is unbalanced both geographically and in local government finance terms. That it has a ‘viable’ future is more down to the fact that governments, of any colour, have failed to act on the root causes of its difficulties than anything else. My solutions are:-

* Bring in a Local Income Tax and scrap the unfair Council tax
* Reorganise those areas of England that still have District and County Councils so that all councils are unitary
* Empower communities to run far more services at a very local level