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Councils told to make fracking a priority

Having previously dangled the carrot in front of local authorities to incentivise approval of fracking developments in the form of their promise to allow them to keep 100% of business rate revenues generated by fracking, the Conservative government now seems to be bringing out the stick.

An announcement from Department of Energy & Climate Change dated 13th August declared shale gas is a ‘national priority’, and warns that “shale applications can’t be frustrated by slow and confused decision making amongst councils”.

Consequently, new measures are being introduced to fast-track shale gas planning applications, including:

  • Revising permitted development rights for drilling boreholes to monitor groundwater. Adding shale applications as a recovery criterion for appeals.
  • Empowering the Communities Secretary to call in on shale planning applications and recover appeals.
  • Identifying councils that fail to rule for or against oil and gas planning applications within 16 weeks, with a view to handing the final decision to the Communities Secretary.
  • Forcing the Planning Inspectorate to prioritise shale application appeals and call-ins.
  • Commentators believe the move is a direct response to Lancashire county's rejection of Cuadrilla’s applications to frack in the area, which came after repeated delays as the council carefully gathered and considered evidence.

Critics also say the government is attacking the right of local communities to decide whether or not they want fracking in their area.

Lancashire county council’s cabinet member for environment, planning and cultural services Marcus Johnstone told The Guardian, “I can see what the direction of travel is: it’s to remove local determinism, and the right of local people to have a say”.

Friends of the Earth’s planning adviser Naomi Luhde-Thompson seconded Johnstone’s assessment, arguing that “These changes are being made because the Government doesn’t agree with the democratic decisions councils have been making”.

However, councils now face a tough decision as the business case for fracking continues to stack up. As well as the promise of business rates revenue from shale gas developments, the government announcement refers to proposals to be presented ‘later in the year’ regarding the design of a new “sovereign wealth fund” that could help bolster council coffers.

In light of continued cuts in central government funding, councils may be forced to risk the ire of sections of their community in exchange for greater financial security in the future. Delay, and the decision could be taken out of their hands regardless.

Shared services: saving money for councils

The Local Government Association (LGA) has re-launched its national map of shared services, revealing a massive increase in shared service agreements between Local Authorities – and a significant rise in cost savings.

Saving the penniesLondon-UK

In 2012, there were 220 shared service agreements in place across England. Since then another 194 have been set up, saving participants an extra £297m. In total there are currently 416 shared service agreements in operation, delivering combined savings of £462m.

Of that total, nearly a third of the financial benefits have come from merging back office services (£146m). That amounts to nearly double the savings made by sharing procurement and capital assets (£79m) and customer-facing services (£75m).

Widening the net

Although savings are skewed to the back office, the new map reveals that councils are widening the net in the search for savings. In particular, LGA data reveals a significant rise in councils sharing adult services, procurement services and capital assets. Savings were even found in children’s services and housing, suggesting that no sector is off limits.

The innovation of local authorities in cutting costs is to be applauded, and the rise of commercialism seen not only in such shared service agreements, but in decisions to rent out spare office space and use economies of scale to benefit from outsourcing consistently reveal resourcefulness in the face of adversity.

Protecting assets

Yet it’s hardly surprising that councils are looking further afield to save money when, as LGA Improvement and Innovation Board chairman Peter Fleming has been quick to point out, “savings from shared services simply do not match the scale of the 40 percent funding reduction councils saw during the lifetime of the last Parliament.”

That’s why we believe it’s important to focus on maintaining a healthy cash flow too. That means ensuring that shared service agreements are monitored, costed and/or invoiced quickly and efficiently, but also that debts like the £4.55bn of unpaid council tax and business rates in 2013/14 are claimed wherever possible. And an experienced service provider like Dukes Bailiffs can help.

We work with numerous councils across England to liaise with debtors and seek amicable repayment plans to suit both parties, minimising the burden on stretched local authority staff and recouping much-needed funds.

For more information about our services, contact a Dukes Bailiffs advisor today.

The impact of a new government on British councils

The general election has promised a surprising amount of change this time around, with most of the parties keen to court voters on core issues of devolution and local government. But how will the new government look based on the policies of the major political parties?

Devolving powerDukes-NewGov

All the major parties have a commitment of one kind or another to devolving greater power.

The Conservative Party manifesto is focused on delivering power to large cities that choose to have elected mayors, including over "economic development, transport and social care" – a pilot scheme allowing Cambridgeshire, Greater Manchester and Cheshire East to keep 100% of business rate growth.

Labour share similar ideas for devolved power and business rates, but promise an English Devolution Act transferring £30bn to city and country regions. They also propose councils be given the right to curate High Streets by refusing planning permission to undesirable businesses.

Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, champion Devolution on Demand, a piecemeal approach enabling councils to dictate the rate at which they adopt devolved powers.

Practical changes

Conservatives are promising a minimum 10% stake in public sector land sales, and, along with Labour, they encourage voluntary services integration of the type introduced by Buckinghamshire and Surrey councils as a cost-saving exercise.

In terms of direct funding, Labour also promise a higher council tax on long-term unoccupied homes, while the Lib Dems suggest councils use crowdfunding and alternative finance models.

Accountability

The Conservatives and Labour both promise more direct democracy. While the Tories specifically promise residents the right to veto high council tax rises, Labour's English New Deal is more specific about the NHS. Their manifesto states that it will give the local public "a seat at the table" for any proposed changes. Labour also advocate the integration of online feedback services.

The Lib Dems, in contrast, are more focused on empowering communities to take on services themselves. Particular emphasis is placed on parish councils and tenant councils in social housing, and on communities being given the right to take over services like libraries rather than see them being cut.

For advice about debt and cash flow concerns, contact a Dukes Bailiffs advisor today.

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