Local authority financial sustainability and the section 114 regime Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Social care

1.The failure to properly fund children’s and adult social care, especially adult social care, is the single biggest threat facing local government financial resilience. Given that the cost of providing social care consumes between 60% and 70% of the budgets of top-tier councils, a solution to this funding crisis alone could largely restore local government finances. The Government’s current policy of effectively forcing local councils to impose successive above-inflation council tax rises is imposing additional burdens on council tax payers. It is disappointing that the recent Queen’s Speech made so little mention of plans to reform social care funding. We are also concerned about the cuts to more discretionary services arising from councils’ need to prioritise social care provision. We recommend that the Government urgently reform the funding of social care in England. (Paragraph 13)


2.We agree with the principle of incentivising councils to grow business rates in their area, as a means of making them less reliant on central funding, but we are concerned about the impact on councils that, through no fault of their own, are less able to do this. As our predecessor Committee concluded, the Business Rates Retention Scheme is too complex in seeking to both incentivise growth and redistribute funding according to need. We are reassured that the Government remains committed to implementing the Fair Funding Review, which, along with the business rates “reset”, could partly restore the link between funding and need, but in the long term we do not see how the BRRS can be the most sensible means of matching funding to need. (Paragraph 24)

3.The question of the BRRS is closely related to the debate about the longstanding role of equalisation in how local government in England is funded. Whilst the purpose of equalisation is to ensure fairness between councils, there is little agreement on the appropriate level: 100% equalisation would provide local authorities with no incentive to build up their tax base, whereas no equalisation would leave some councils chronically underfunded through no fault of their own. The system of local government finance should both enable councils to increase revenue by growing their tax base and protect those in more deprived areas. Rules about equalisation need to be transparent, comprehensible and predictable. (Paragraph 25)

4.We recommend that the Government implement the Fair Funding Review and business rates reset as soon as possible, as the quickest way of partly restoring the link between funding and need. The Government should also allow councils to retain 75% of business rates from 2022, but so that this represents a net increase in funding, we urge it not to impose commensurate cuts to grant funding. The additional funding should then be put towards equalisation in a separate grant designed for this purpose. We also urge the Government to clarify what level of funding equalisation it considers to be appropriate for local government. (Paragraph 26)

5.We are pleased that the allocation of the £300 million grant for social care mitigates the distributional impact of the council tax rises, but we do not think the fairness of the funding model should be reliant on one-off, short-term grants. It is right that certain councils be compensated for low council tax bases, but this should be done through a more predictable means of funding equalisation. Council tax is also an increasingly regressive tax that again penalises those in more deprived areas. A revaluation is long overdue. In the longer term, one possibility that could be considered is a proportional property tax. (Paragraph 31)

6.The Government should reform council tax by undertaking a revaluation of properties and introducing additional council tax bands, in line with the recommendations of our predecessor Committee. In the longer term, the Government should consider options for wider reform of council tax and business rates, including possibly replacing them with a proportional property tax. (Paragraph 32)

7.The funding base of local government in England is very narrow. As the pandemic has highlighted, revenue derived from council tax and business rates is also insecure. As concluded by our predecessor Committee, greater fiscal autonomy could contribute to local government financial resilience. (Paragraph 36)

8.We recommend that the Government widen the funding base of local government to make it less vulnerable to shocks such as the covid-19 pandemic, including by giving councils more flexibility over local taxes and other revenue-raising powers. This would also align with giving local authorities more powers over spending, which we will consider in our future report on devolution in England. Giving local government more powers to raise and spend money is a position supported by our predecessor Committee. We also recommend that the Government reform business rates, in particular by finding a mechanism by which to level the playing field between bricks-and-mortar and online retailers. This is an issue we will return to in our upcoming report on supporting high streets after covid-19. (Paragraph 37)

9.We understand the Government’s reasons for resorting to a one-year spending review last year, but we note it followed a one-year spending review in 2019 and that the last multi-year spending review came in 2015. Local government cannot manage its spending and borrowing without the medium-term certainty that multi-year funding settlements bring. If the next spending review is not a multi-year settlement, the recovery of local authority finances after the covid-19 pandemic will be impeded. We are pleased that the Minister acknowledged the importance of multi-year settlements to local government but note he expressed only the hope that the next one would be a multi-year settlement. (Paragraph 42)

10.The proliferation in recent years of small, often one-off and ring-fenced grants, sometimes involving a competitive bidding process, and the uncertainty around such funding, can hinder robust financial planning and management by local authorities, as has been acknowledged by the Public Accounts Committee. Ring-fenced grants also limit councils’ flexibility to match spending to need. Reducing their number would give councils greater control over spending and would be consistent with our previous recommendation that councils be given great revenue-raising powers. (Paragraph 43)

11.The next financial settlement for local government must be a multi-year settlement. The Government should also consolidate the number of small and ring-fenced grants, which can limit local authorities’ ability to provide services flexibly, and should reduce the number of bidding processes, which can be burdensome and time consuming. (Paragraph 44)


12.The Government deserves credit for having responded to an unprecedented crisis with significant emergency funding that, from a national perspective, broadly covers all the additional financial pressures consequent on the pandemic and lockdowns in 2021–22. The effects of the pandemic will be felt for many years, however, and we are concerned that the Government has not committed to covering costs arising in future years, including from lost council tax and business rates. We are concerned, too, that some local authorities have been worse hit than others, particularly shire districts, and that some of these councils, even with the additional government funding, will still be left out of pocket. The disproportionate impact on local authorities will not assist the Government’s levelling up agenda. (Paragraph 54)

13.We urge the Government to consider ways of mitigating the uneven financial support across local authorities and provide greater certainty to councils over what future costs incurred as a result of the pandemic it intends to cover. (Paragraph 55)

Local authority commercial investment

14.Commercial investment appears to pose no clear threat to local government financial resilience overall, and where it has contributed to financial instability, the councils concerned must bear ultimate responsibility. We also welcome the Government’s reforms to the PWLB’s lending terms, which are a useful clarification of the purposes for which PWLB loans can be used. In understanding local authorities’ use of commercial investment, we must acknowledge that previous Governments encouraged councils to be more commercial. (Paragraph 70)

15.Furthermore, whilst we welcome the Minister’s commitment to gathering the best quality data to better understand councils’ exposure to commercial investment, we think this should have been done by now. We are also concerned about the lack of a statutory requirement on local councils to comply with the prudential code. (Paragraph 71)

16.We recommend that the Government legislate to make compliance with the prudential code by local authorities a statutory duty. The Government should also make good on its commitment to improving the data it collects on local authority commercial investment. (Paragraph 72)

Audit and control

17.As highlighted in Sir Tony Redmond’s independent review of local authority audit, the local audit market is deeply flawed. We are particularly concerned about the shortage of specialist local auditors, about the principle of allowing local councils to choose their own auditor and about the lack of a co-ordinating body responsible for monitoring the performance of auditors and joining up auditor findings across the country. We are pleased the Government has now announced its plans for instituting a new audit system leader, and we can see the argument for separating regulation and procurement. We are also pleased that the Department has accepted the recommendation in the Redmond Review that the new system leader produce annual reports on the state of local audit, although it is not clear to what extent it will be able to join up individual auditor findings with a view to identifying systemic issues across local government. We also note that the new Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority, in which the standalone unit will sit, is being set up primarily to audit the private sector. Given that local authority audit is different from private sector audit, in that it must consider such additional matters as public interest and value for money, it remains to be seen if a standalone unit within ARGA can provide the necessary specialism that local authority audit requires. We have concerns that the Government has not established a regulator along the lines suggested in Sir Tony Redmond’s independent review, rather than as a standalone unit within another regulator. (Paragraph 80)

18.We recommend the Government remove the ability of local authorities to choose their own auditors. The risk is that auditors will be reluctant to flag up potential problems for fear of losing their contract. The Government should consider who will be best placed to appoint local authority auditors, given that it should not be local authorities themselves, and ARGA doing so could lead to a conflict of interest. We also ask the Government to confirm that the new system leader will be able to join up individual auditor findings with a view to identifying systemic issues across local government. Without a central body responsible for oversight of the sector, we see no way of ensuring a robust and transparent regime of local audit. (Paragraph 81)

19.The absence of section 114 notices before 2018 is adduced as evidence that the regime has been broadly successful. The consequences for a council of issuing a notice are serious, however, and we are concerned that, rather than concentrating minds, the regime might be hindering good financial management, as it lacks intermediary measures that councils can use to flag up concerns. Croydon Council delayed issuing a notice for fear of the negative publicity and the statement it would make about its financial position. Northamptonshire Council also delayed. We believe that an intermediary “yellow card” measure that could be applied by the Chief Finance Officer might have forced these councils to confront much earlier the seriousness of the problems facing them. (Paragraph 89)

20.We recommend that the Government consider changing the section 114 regime to provide Chief Finance Officers with intermediary measures that can be applied at a much earlier stage to highlight concerns before a council’s finances deteriorate so far as to require a section 114 notice. We also recommend that Chief Finance Officers report to both the Executive and appropriate scrutiny committees on a quarterly basis on the state of local authority finances and, in particular, draw attention to potential serious financial problems. (Paragraph 90)

Published: 19 July 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement