...and will they mean it?
As I scoured my daily updates I noticed that the Law Society Gazette was launching a series of articles about the challenges facing local authorities and their legal advisers, with the increased financial pressures councils face as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. I opened my online copy of the Gazette and discovered our head of local government, Olwen Brown, sharing her wisdom. As ever her commentary gets to the core of the issue. Councils have borne the brunt of looking after their communities and local economy, devoting tremendous resources to being a beacon of support, distributing funds very quickly often with inadequate guidance from central government.
And so it is that we have found ourselves advising both councils and businesses on a range of initiatives, including the Infection Control Fund and Getting Building Fund. Many of the projects of a local infrastructure nature are very innovative and should facilitate economic stimulus, but these will often bear fruit only in the long term. It has been a glorious season for state aid lawyers providing our legal sign-offs, not least as our answers are not necessarily the same as those proffered by central government (although what will be the state aid position beyond 1 January 2021 remains to be seen!).
The Local Government Association hopes that the Government will reward councils with "greater fiscal responsibility" as a consequence of their proven competence in this season. That has been an unfulfilled wish for many years. I see little evidence of central government letting go, even where they really should know that councils are doing a fantastic job. Prove me wrong, but "thanks, but no thanks!" is what I expect to be the refrain of the UK Treasury for many years to come.
Olwen Brown, partner at Anthony Collins Solicitors in Birmingham, points out that local authorities have been trying to strike ‘a fine balance’ between making sure that they are looking after public money effectively and protecting the local economy. As England endures lockdown once again that task seems unlikely to get any easier.