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Budget 2021- What are the consultation prospects?

It’s that time of year again, the Red Box has been opened, the major policy points leaked, and the internet is full of journalists and politicians sharing the anecdote about how Chancellors are permitted to drink whatever they want whilst making their budget speech to Parliament. Rishi Sunak’s second budget comes at an interesting time, not only does he have to set out the Government’s plan for recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, but also try to start achieving some of the ‘levelling up’ claims that the Government were elected upon.

The economic detail is still being analysed and disagreed over- but what is there of interest to consultors? We’ve separated our analysis out into separate sections, each under a broad sub-heading, to help you focus on the parts most of interest to you. This year’s budget document comes alongside a document called ‘Build Back Better- our plan for growth’, a document intended to lay out Government plans to support economic growth via investment- for ease of reading, we have also included this document in our assessment.

Confirmed Government Consultations

The most obvious consultation implications in any budget are of course those which are directly announced within it. Going through both the documentation and the Chancellor’s speech, we can identify nine confirmed upcoming consultations, two white papers, and an indeterminate number of additional consultations due to be announced in a Command Paper on the 23rd March. These additional consultations will relate to various tax changes and general taxation policy.

The consultations range from the technical (on the implementation of certain OECD rules into UK law), to the more general-public oriented ones such as those previewed for release on 23rd March. The majority are not likely to be of general public interest, and to many of our public authority friends will not be of immediate relevance.

Where we might see some more interest is in the white papers. The first of these is on the future of UK railways. As those who have followed the HS2 saga will know, rail projects are often incredibly controversial, and though we expect this paper to be less about routeing and more about more ‘macro’ issues relating to rail transport, it seems likely that there will be a lot of different competing views to take into account, particularly in communities that are currently underserved by existing railway services.

The second white paper is possibly the most interesting one, particularly for local authorities. It’s being previewed as a white paper on Devolution and Local Recovery, looking to expand devolution arrangements. Rumblings about local government reform are a common theme under any government, and there have been many speculations about Boris Johnson’s intentions- this White Paper may provide our first opportunity to start mapping out proposed changes, and take the temperature of local communities on the new scheme.

Likely Government Consultations

In addition to the consultations confirmed in the budget, there are many other areas where stakeholder engagement and consultation will almost certainly arise. For public authorities, probably the most important to be aware of will be the establishment of a Modern Methods of Construction taskforce to accelerate the delivery of homes in the UK. As this will potentially dovetail with some planning matters, we might expect to see some degree of consultation on the establishment and membership of this taskforce, as well as potentially its terms of reference. Whatever happens, in conjunction with the already under-consideration planning reforms, it should be one to monitor for those involved in planning.

The second is a study being commissioned from the National Infrastructure Commission examining towns and regeneration. Although a study, rather than a consultation, we would expect it to involve some degree of stakeholder engagement in order to achieve a well-rounded picture of the subject matter. As with the previous review, the terms of reference have not yet been released, so we will keep an eye out for them to see how they intend to engage with the people best placed to speak on the topic.

Most of the other areas where we think it’s likely there will be some degree of stakeholder involvement revolve around matters of taxation, and the introduction of new civil and criminal penalties related to enforcement of existing law. For private bodies, there is likely to be some interest in the Government’s new two-strand “Help to Grow” scheme, designed to provide training and equipment at a discount to UK firms, both in Management techniques and Digital skills. The budget contains a pledge that these programmes will be developed in partnership with industry- though what form this will take is again as yet unclear.

Major Projects

Many of the most significant headlines of any budget come from the major infrastructure and other projects announced in it. For consultation, this is equally important as big infrastructure projects often come accompanied by major consultation requirements, though these often aren’t outlined in the document, in favour of general statements about the plans. This budget is no different on that score with, we reckon, around fourteen major projects being announced that are likely to draw significant consultation requirements and attention.

With many of these projects, consultation will not necessarily be directly required or conducted by the government, but will rather require consultation at later phases, most often by bodies at arms-length from central government (most often local authorities). Naturally, we do not propose to list all fourteen of them here, instead grouping them by category and looking at certain key proposals that we believe are likely to incur consultation requirements for public bodies.

Firstly we will look at a group of these projects designed to provide additional funding to communities as a part of the Government’s stated ‘levelling up’ agenda. Broadly speaking, these are the Towns Fund, the Levelling Up fund, the UK Community Renewal Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund. Long-time readers will know that the last of these is something of a recurring precept for the government- oft mentioned, seldom detailed. All of these relate to the unlocking of funds for development in local authority areas- always a situation where consultation with communities ends up playing a big role. In the case of the Levelling Up Fund and Community Renewal Funds, we are to see the prospectuses, that will detail the process for the submission of bids- we’ll be very interested to see if the government will be insisting on evidence of public engagement before providing any money.

The Towns Fund has already drawn some attention for the mysterious process by which the forty-five towns currently being given funding have been selected. Some have already criticised the selections as politically motivated, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see legal challenges to the decisions already made. Apart from salacious rumours however, there are other points of interest. With the Towns Fund being designed to invest in struggling and deprived communities, we’ll be interested to see what consultations go on within local areas to ensure that the new funds are being used appropriately. Many deprived areas include significant minority communities, and citizens who would fall into the ‘seldom heard’ category with a lower level of political engagement. Towns that have secured funds under this programme would be well advised to revise their equalities obligations and ensure their processes to reach the seldom heard are robust.

Also under the first category would fall the acceleration of City and Growth Deals in Scotland and Wales, and the plans for four more in Northern Ireland; efforts to improve regional cultural infrastructure; and finally additional funding for the National Home Building Fund which will include delivery of the Brownfield Fund in combined authorities. The last one of these might mean that combined authorities should brush up on their skills in planning and development engagement to ensure that communities have a full say in the development of brownfield sites- the assumption should never be made the communities will just be happy to see them gone- they must always have their say.

Mrs Thatcher once famously said “You or I come by road or rail, but economists travel on infrastructure.” We’ve already discussed the imminent white paper on the future of the railways, but additional specific infrastructure projects are also name-checked in the budget. Eight city regions are to get funds for intra-city transport settlements, conditional on governance agreements. For authorities within these areas, public engagement on the needs of their communities will prove valuable in determining how those funds should be used. In addition to the funds due to the West Midlands Combined Authority for the intra-city transport, Birmingham will be receiving funds for further transport improvements, and next-door Solihull for regeneration at Arden Cross. Much of this is related to the support of HS2, and we could yet see further consultation by local authorities on what specific improvements are needed.

There are two other strands to the infrastructure plans. The first of them is the return of freeports, gone since 2012, with the first eight new freeport locations now having been designated. The Government itself may have some consulting to do here, as they are promising in the budget to legislate for powers to create ‘tax sites’ to apply benefits to businesses in these tax sites. In addition, we may see further consultation by the relevant local authorities as they assemble their business cases and attempt to arrive at appropriate governance arrangements. The second additional strand is the Union Connectivity Review, due to report back in the summer, which may well bring about significant recommendations upon which we should expect public engagement.

What’s missing?

What isn’t in a budget is often just as interesting as what is in it. So what’s missing from this one? Perhaps the most glaring thing is the absence of any mention of social care. With the new health and social care reforms currently in the works (see our previous articles here and here), there had been some expectations that the Government might use the budget to preview the major social care plan that Boris Johnson claimed to already have when he first moved into Downing Street. Courtesy of a submission to the Lords Public Services Committee, we now know that the social care white paper will be again pushed back to next year. With the NHS preparing for the aftermath of covid, and the ongoing mental health crisis (expected by healthcare professionals to have been significantly exacerbated by the pandemic), the absence of any mention of social care is perhaps a little concerning, particularly for local authorities who are left carrying the metaphorical baby with ever decreasing funds. With the likelihood of further cuts being needed, local authorities should prepare for more of those difficult consultations about service provision.

Criticism has also been raised about the lack of ambition for tackling climate change. It has to be said, they’re not entirely absent- there is provision for the boosting of two green energy sites in Aberdeen and Holyhead, as well as funds for delivery of the ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ published last year. Much of the Governments plan seems to focus on encouragement of green investment in the UK. As many readers will know, the Institute has been doing a lot of work on green issues, particularly through our green recovery engagement service, and more support for stretched public authorities trying to ensure a sustainable future for their communities might have been welcome.

Conclusions

This year’s budget is (perhaps necessarily) a very mixed bag with a threefold focus on continuing pandemic support, restoring the economy post-pandemic and starting to make good on the Government’s delayed manifesto promises. For consultors it contains many valuable insights into the areas where public consultation is likely to be a high priority, with significant public attention focussed on it. The importance of getting your consultations right in any circumstances cannot be underestimated, and the risks of getting it wrong can be incredibly damaging politically, legally and financially. Being prepared for what is upcoming, and ensuring that you are ready for it remain a vital part of the forward-thinking consultor’s role.

One of the major features of the consultations we envisage emanating from this budget, whether direct Government consultations or those done as a result of policy changes and new projects by other public authorities is the wide range of potential consultation issues they engage with. It was perhaps an inevitable consequence of the Government’s levelling up agenda that equalities issues would be a major consideration for consultors, but as these will likely be the first swathe of major consultations after the ‘return to normality’, it will also be interesting to watch and see what lessons we’ve collectively learnt during the pandemic actually end up being applied. We’re certainly looking forward to it.

About the Author

Stephen serves as the Institute’s Legal and Parliamentary Officer. Before joining the Institute Stephen studied Law at Bangor University and pursued a Masters’ degree in Aviation and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal. After this, he returned to London and was called to the bar in 2016 at the Honorable Society of Gray’s Inn, before deciding not to go into practice and move towards public policy work instead. Within the Institute, Stephen provides legal, political and policy analysis of UK and global current affairs of interest to consultors and consultees.

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