Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 22nd February 2017.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Communities and Local Government Committee 4:45 pm, 22nd February 2017

The obvious point is that there is no change from the provisional settlement. We are talking about the same figures as the Government presented to us a few weeks ago. It is difficult to imagine that nothing any local council has said in that time has been relevant to its financial circumstances to the extent that Ministers feel the need to respond in some way. That is the case: no change whatever to the initial proposals.

The settlement therefore represents a continuation of the cuts that began in 2010. I welcome, as I have previously, the four-year spending settlements being given to councils. The settlements are a helpful step forward that local government has also welcomed in general. This is a cash-flat settlement over a four-year period, which therefore means a continuation of cuts because cash buys less over a four-year period not merely because of inflationary pressures, but because of the additional pressures on services from the growing number of elderly people and the extra pressures of the Care Act 2014 and the Children and Families Act 2014. Local authorities are having to absorb all those pressures within the cash-flat settlement.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Amyas Morse, has figures showing that the spending power of local authorities, in real terms, reduced by 25% between 2010 and 2016. He has also said that there will be a further 6% reduction up to 2020. Amyas Morse says that the cuts are continuing.

Furthermore, it is very clear that local government has received bigger cuts over a longer period than any other service provided by Government—far bigger than any service provided by any other central Government Department. The reality of the situation is that no other Department has had cuts on this scale, and that cannot be challenged because those are the facts.

The Local Government Association has said that, by 2020, at the end of the spending review period, there will be a gap of £5.8 billion. That is the LGA’s figure, and I know that some people will say, “Well they would say that, wouldn’t they? They want extra money.” Those people might be right, but there may be demands on service provision that cannot be met by the agreed funding settlement.

All I ask of the Secretary of State and the Minister is that they please think carefully when the time comes to make decisions about the scheme for 100% business rate retention and about allocating the extra £11 billion to £13 billion. The Local Government Association is clearly saying that the first call on those resources should be the existing services that cannot be funded with local government’s existing money. That is a fundamental point.

I hear what Conservative Members are saying about the need to get the needs assessment right. One of my Select Committee colleagues, Kevin Hollinrake, is nodding in agreement. The Committee is considering the needs assessment, and we have commissioned work on that, too, but it is no good getting the needs assessment right on the allocation of resources to individual authorities if, at the beginning of the process, we get it wrong on the overall needs of local government as a whole. That is why we need to take particular account of that demand.

My local authority in Sheffield faces challenges next year. It is saying to me that there will be another £23 million cut in revenue support grant; that it will need to make £40 million of savings to meet inflation and the extra demands that it, like any other council, has to deal with, particularly those relating to social care; and that all that will mean reductions in the standard of service provision across the board. It will try to protect social care, but that means less money for other services, such as parks and open spaces, on which the Select Committee has just published a report that shows the stresses and strains on those services.

Social care has rightly been given a lot of attention. Along with the Chairs of the Health Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, I wrote to the Prime Minister to ask for an all-party review of long-term social care funding needs. That still needs to be done; we have to reach a new settlement because the existing system clearly does not work. We have to make the best of it for the time being, but we need to reach a general agreement on something more substantial for the longer term that will stand the test of time, so that review still needs to be done.

Let us look at the immediate situation. The LGA is saying that there will be a £2.6 billion deficit in social care funding by the end of this financial settlement in 2020, and that £1.3 billion of that is here and now. Despite the Government’s proposal to increase the precept by 3%, and the cut in the new homes bonus to allow for extra social care grant, the LGA is still saying there will be a £1.3 billion deficit next year. The Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into social care. We will be producing reports in due course, so it would be wrong of me to prejudge the outcome, but I can say that we have had evidence from the King’s Fund, the Nuffield Trust and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and all gave similar figures about the current funding gap. They may disagree by a few hundred thousand pounds, but essentially they all say there is currently a gap in the money local authorities have available for the provision of adult social care.