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Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:43 pm on 7th February 2018.

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Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:43 pm, 7th February 2018

I represent beautiful Bath. Obviously not everyone in Bath is wealthy, but on the whole it is a wealthy area. I am, perhaps, unusual, in that I lived in the north-west for 25 years, and for 10 years represented a local council area that was very deprived. I can tell Conservative Members that that was a real eye-opener. Anyone who wants to see real deprivation should visit the post-industrial towns of the north.

It is disappointing that such a partisan approach has been taken today. Yes, we should represent our own areas—I do that—but we should also make decisions in the round and look at fairness in the round, and we should make the right decisions for the whole country. The proposal we are discussing today is simply not fair. It will disadvantage the disadvantaged further, and it will increase the gap that already exists. I urge Conservative Members to think again and, if necessary, to spend a few years in local government in one of our northern towns.

I want to make a separate point about the overall proposal. The finance of local government and the way we deliver local services have changed beyond recognition in recent years, and that matters for democracy. We talk so much about taking back control these days, but the clearest evidence of democracy in action is at a local level. We deliver so much of what matters in people’s lives through local government, from bin collections and street cleaning, to planning, housing and adult care services.

Until 2014, as I said, I was a councillor for 10 years in a unitary authority. We had clear spending and decision-making powers, and there was a clear line of accountability, but even then our council budgets were dominated by two pressures: efficiency savings and ballooning adult care costs. No Government have properly addressed the problem, but this Government have led a relentless crusade to destroy local government and local democracy. Most schools have been forced to become academies and are now overseen by Whitehall, our local facilities are run under PFI contracts, and more than half of our councils no longer own any social housing stock. Meanwhile, regulatory functions such as trading standards and building regulation control services are outsourced, which is a polite word for privatisation.

Where is the commitment to new resources for social care funding following yet another NHS winter crisis? The figure announced today will not cover the annual £2.3 billion funding gap that is expected by 2020. As homelessness increases and one in 111 children spend Christmas in temporary accommodation or bed and breakfasts, where is the commitment to new social housing so that people have a home to go to? The net cost to councils of providing temporary accommodation has tripled in the past three years. Rising homelessness is costing local government more and more in the long term. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 increases the demands on local authorities, but does not provide adequate resources. Even in Bath and North East Somerset, an affluent area, the council’s estimated shortfall will be over £16 million by 2020. Most of the council’s budget—75%—is spent on adult social care services. Just a small increase in that bill will mean that my council faces a financial crisis, and that is in my affluent council area. The situation at Northamptonshire County Council is just the tip of the iceberg.

As with most of what the Government do, their approach is driven not by pragmatic policy, but by small-state ideology. The public sector is to be weakened and replaced at every opportunity by private providers. Local decision making is becoming increasingly powerless.

There is an alternative, and it is rooted in the belief that the public sector can provide good services for local people. Bin collections, schools and care services can be run by councils. A service that is run by local people for local people is normally better than a service managed from many hundreds of miles away. A service that is run for the public interest has different values from a service run for maximum profit.

The debate is yet another dismal display of the Government’s deliberate destruction of local government, and that will continue until crisis after crisis, and tragedy after tragedy, force the Government to rethink. My party is the champion of local government. We believe in local democracy and delivering the best possible services locally.