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Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:14 pm on 7th February 2018.

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Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution) 5:14 pm, 7th February 2018

I need to make progress.

I want to touch on what the 1% additional council tax means. When we seek to raise money through council tax—through a property-based tax—that takes account of the property values in an area, but it bears no relation at all to local needs or the cost of delivering services in that area. Therefore, the more pressure that gets added to councils to provide that from council tax, the more inequality we are going to see through council tax.

In Richmond, 1% for social care would raise £36 per person over the age of 65, but in Rochdale it raises just £18, because the tax base just is not there to support an equal increase in cash being taken. So if all we do every year is come back and say that we are going to allow another 1% and another 1%—and perhaps, if things get even worse, allow another 2%—that will just take even more from people who can afford it even less, because although council tax is important, it is regressive; it takes far more from lower income families than any other form of direct taxation in this country. So as much as it is important, we ought to always have an eye on the impact on those who actually pay the bill. After all, as we often hear from Government Members, there is no such thing as Government money; it is all the public’s money. That is right, but we are quicker to take the money from some people than from others it seems. We should focus on that, too.

We know that social care and children’s services are in crisis, and we know the complexities of social care will mean there is greater demand on the public purse. The difficulty is that the Government’s approach has been completely underwhelming and has completely missed the opportunity to set the record straight. Aside from the massive increase in looked-after children and children in receipt of reviews, we also know the way that has been funded is completely unsustainable.

The transition grant and the rural service delivery grant were introduced on the basis of two concepts. First, those who were hit hardest by the reduction in revenue support grant would get greater support to help them in a temporary period of two years to adjust their baseline budgets and organise efficiencies to eventually deliver a balanced budget. Secondly, there was a recognition through the second grant that it costs more to deliver services in rural areas than in urban areas because of sparsity. I am afraid the evidence base for both of those does not hold water and has not even passed the test the Government have set. So the transition grant that was meant to be there for two years has now been extended, and the rural service delivery grant has been completely undermined by a report the Government themselves commissioned by LG Futures in 2014 to assess the additional costs of delivering services in rural as opposed to urban areas.

The report said there were differences in the cost of delivering some services in rural as opposed to urban areas but the net cost in terms of the impact on councils’ overall budgets was felt harder by urban areas as the costs in those areas were far higher. [Interruption.] That is not my report; it is a Government report published on their website that supports the revenue support grant. Given that the evidence base has been decried by the Government’s research, I am staggered that they are putting even more money into a system where the evidence base is completely contrary to the position the Government seem to be taking.

The report found that 11 service areas were affected in rural areas and that accounted for about 15% of the council spend in those areas, but when it looked at the 15 service areas that were not affected, it found that they accounted for 31% of urban local authority budgets, so there was a 15% additional cost because of sparsity in rural areas versus 31% of additional cost in urban areas for service delivery. Therefore, if there was going to be a grant designed to help councils deal with the additional cost of delivering public services, on an evidence base the Government have commissioned, accepted and published on their website, that ought to be directed to urban authorities where the costs have been demonstrated to be much higher. Yet we continue with this farce.

I find it interesting that the Secretary of State does not have the Chancellor’s ear. When he knocks on the door of No. 11 and asks for more money, the Chancellor is not particularly interested in banking that support for the future as much as the Secretary of State is determined to bank the support of Conservative Back Benchers for whatever reason. Perhaps it is to face off a rebellion today or to buy off Conservative shires—a purpose that has not yet been declared. He should be honest about why the money has been allocated.

I do not resent the argument being made by areas with service delivery costs relating to sparsity that that ought to be reflected in their settlement. I do not disagree with that at all, and I commend the MPs who have made that case and have managed to secure progress from the Secretary of State, who on most measures does not seem to understand his brief. However, he certainly understands the need to appeal to Back Benchers and to bank their support for the future.

I resent the view, however, that some councils in some areas can be funded in a fairer way—although still not fair—while others have to sink or swim depending on their council tax base 27 years ago. That is not a fair or sustainable way to fund council services. I have no confidence that the fair funding review will deliver what most reasonable people would consider to be a reasonable and fair funding formula, which would be one based on need that would take into account urban deprivation, rural sparsity, demographics and demographic change, and the difference in unit costs for delivering public services. A fair formula would take all that into account and arrive at a number, but that is not what is on the table today.

The Conservatives who will go through the Lobby later to support the motions should bear this in mind: there is no new money. Money has been moved around from departmental budgets that were set before Christmas. The money in the transition fund and the rural service delivery grant is a one-off that has been taken from the business rate safety net—the Government will not say how that will be funded in future—and from other departmental reserves. How will councils be funded between now and 2022? Do Conservative Back Benchers really want this charade at this point in the calendar every year? We know that there is not enough money to fund public services, but they hold their nose because they have been bought off with a couple of pounds. They absolutely understand, in the way that all Opposition Members do, that the cuts have gone too far and that our communities deserve better.