I am very pleased to speak in this debate, which I thank my Front-Bench colleagues for securing. This is our first Opposition day debate for goodness knows how long; it has been so long that I have lost track. It is important that we have this debate just about a week before hundreds of local councillors and council candidates from all parties go to the polls across the country.
The House recognises that we have been embroiled in the Brexit nightmare for the last few months, as have the Government, but the vital work of local government has continued in the meantime. That includes the vital work of hundreds, if not thousands, of local councillors to ensure that all our local communities are provided with the services and support on which they depend. We often forget that local councillors give an awful lot of time for not very much reward in order to keep the wheels of local democracy running, and they are currently doing so in unprecedentedly difficult circumstances.
Central Government funding for local councils such as mine in Exeter has been cut by a massive 60% since 2010, and that has put an intolerable strain on councils’ budgets and their ability to deliver local services. Let us not forget that this has come on top of the big cuts to the police service, the fire service, schools and other local services. There can be few of us, or our constituents, who have not experienced the impact of these cuts—whether through the loss of a teacher or classroom assistant from one of our schools, difficulty in obtaining the care we need for a vulnerable child or elderly relative, the absence of a local police officer from the streets in our area, or the unrepaired potholes in the streets outside our front doors.
At the same time that the Government have cut support to local councils such as mine in Exeter, they have expected them to raise more of their own funds that they spend locally through the local council tax. That is why my constituents and others around the country have now faced year upon year of above-inflation increases to their council tax. As we all recognise, council tax is a very unfair tax. Unlike income tax, which funds central Government, council tax does not accurately take into account people’s ability to pay. For example, this year Devon County Council, which levies the bulk of Exeter’s local council tax, has put up its charge by 3.99%—let’s call it 4%—and the Conservative police and crime commissioner has raised her council tax by a whopping 12.75%. That means that my constituents in Exeter now pay significantly more through their council tax for policing than for all of the local services provided by Exeter City Council.
Those cuts in Government support have inevitably meant that local councillors have had to make difficult and in some cases unpopular decisions. The Prime Minister announced at the Tory party conference last autumn that austerity, the era of cuts, was over, but that simply is not true. Exeter City Council has to find a further £3.9 million of savings this year and next. So far, its good financial management and our city’s relative economic success have enabled our council to do that without damaging cuts to vital local services while the Labour council maintains one of the lowest district council tax rates in England. Our council also has ambitious but essential plans to tackle transport congestion, provide more council housing and social housing, and to do much more in the years ahead, but the longer austerity and Government cuts go on, the more challenging delivering that vision becomes.
I congratulate the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Betts, on his excellent speech on the subject of social care. We are all keenly aware of the crisis in our social care services and the devastating knock-on impact it is having on the health service and other services—indeed, the Health and Social Care Committee has written and published countless reports on and conducted countless inquiries into the matter.
I echo my hon. Friend in sincerely urging the Government and our own party’s Front Benchers to give serious consideration to the excellent recommendations we published following our Committees’ joint inquiry last year. It is often said that solving the problem of long-term sustainable funding for social care is impossible—it is simply too difficult to reconcile the different interests, and too controversial for politicians to agree. Well, we did in our joint inquiry. Politicians from across the political spectrum, from what one might call the hard right or the Thatcherite right to the socialist left, unanimously agreed a blueprint that gives any Government a sustainable and equitable solution to the challenges of long-term social care funding. Until we crack that problem, we will not be able to resolve many of the other problems and challenges that have been and will be raised in this debate. Will the Government use our report as the starting point for their Green Paper when it is at last published, whenever that may be?
As we face the elections in eight days’ time, I pay tribute to all local government bodies and local councillors of all parties, who have had a pretty thankless task in recent years but who have none the less achieved some amazing things. In particular, I thank and pay tribute to the leader of Exeter City Council, Pete Edwards, who is retiring next week. Pete is an old-style Labour leader, a local Extonian lad who became a bus driver and rose up through the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers to run our city for the past 10 years—and what a challenging 10 years it has been. His no-nonsense approach, which can at times come across as rather gruff, may not be to everyone’s taste, but those of us who know Pete well and who have worked with him closely over the years know that he has always had the interests of Exeter and its people at the very heart of everything he has done. It is no surprise that under Pete’s leadership Exeter has risen to become one of our most successful and thriving cities. That is in no small part down to him, so thank you, Pete.