Many of us have first-hand experience of the responsibility on local authorities to provide services on a budget. The local authority of a Member who was, like me, elected to Parliament in 2010 will have less than half the Government grant now than it had then.
As councillors, we knew about the need for services such as adult social care for vulnerable people and services that families needed, such as children’s centres. There is a need for the bins to be emptied, the roads swept, the pavements repaired, the libraries and leisure centres kept open, planning applications processed, local businesses supported, child protection services sustained and many other things that local residents take for granted.
People are now noticing the differences—potholes, grass verges, graffiti, fly-tipping, antisocial behaviour and many other things basic to everyday life come to mind. Ministers may rightly say that my Labour Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council is a good council. Several times in recent years it has been shortlisted for, and even won, the council of the year award. Our social workers are winning national awards. We are getting gold awards for animal welfare. Our high street won the “rising star” award. We won “client of the year” for our partnership and building projects. We are winning engineering awards, fostering and adoption campaign awards and awards for protecting the most vulnerable.
Those are all being achieved in the face of adversity—in the knowledge that the day is beckoning when either funding is provided or councillors in Stockton will be delivering the most basic of services, stripped to the statutory minimum and rationed. Stockton Council has done the right thing—focused on protecting the areas and people most in need—but that does not negate the growing pressure on children’s and adults’ social care services, which now take up 57% of the council’s cash. It is no wonder. People are living longer and there is an increased dependency on services such as respite provision and community nursing. Demands for adult social care services are increasing, yet Stockton will see a £74 million a year cut by 2019-20 compared with 2010-11.
Given that local authorities have such a key role to play in people’s day-to-day lives, it is even more absurd that our model of funding is so unstable that it changes frequently and is then topped up with enforced council tax increases and the Tory Government’s social care precept. Do not try to kid me that the Tories are the party of low tax on hard-working families when they dump those central Government costs on council tax payers.
I am sure that what Stockton wants is reflected in many councils across the country. It wants a fair funding review that is just that—fair. I remember the £300 million of extra funding allocated by Government last year; the vast majority of it went to Tory southern authorities. It wants an end to the huge pressures in children’s services and a full recognition of the evidence linking deprivation and the numbers of looked-after children. That must be acknowledged and built into any new model, to ensure that children are kept safe and can receive services and support.
Councils want certainty over future budgets. They want a dose of honesty from the Government, who have reneged on their responsibility to fund councils properly and passed the buck to local councillors, who have to raise council taxes higher and higher in order to maintain statutory services. Northern councils want recognition that most of their properties are in the low council tax bands, which limits their ability to raise substantial sums through small increases. We do not have developers building blocks of 200 apartments costing £500,000 or even more, which can raise hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds for the likes of Westminster and Wandsworth. This is not just a case of the north whingeing. The National Audit Office has confirmed the perilous position in which most councils find themselves, which could mean unsustainability for many of them. After eight years in power, the Conservatives must take some responsibility—in fact, all the responsibility—for this. They must realise the impact of their decisions. They are culpable for the funding crisis in most of our local authorities: it is no one else’s fault.