It is an honour to follow Suella Braverman. From listening to the speeches so far, this has been a sensible debate. Mental health and elderly care—two issues close to my heart—have been discussed in a positive way, and I welcome the forthcoming Green Paper, particularly in how it relates to dementia care. Dementia is a ticking time bomb. We must grasp the issue because it will affect all our futures, and the funding to cope with it in a meaningful and measured way simply is not there yet.
However, I am here to talk about Hartlepool, which has been left behind like many seaside towns. There is a desperate need to improve housing, transport, business growth and job opportunities. Unfortunately, we have some of the most deprived wards in the country, with low life expectancy and fuel and food poverty. We have no fewer than nine foodbanks and, until recently, we topped the national table for the number of unemployed adults.
Following a year-long investigation into our coastal communities, the House of Lords’ Regenerating Seaside Towns Committee recently concluded that places such as Hartlepool have been neglected for far too long, with money from successive Governments having been directed towards big towns and cities at their expense. The report quite rightly pointed to the negative effect that that has had on the economy of our once-thriving seaside towns and on the health, wellbeing and prospects of their people. It also concluded that, with the right investment, towns such as Hartlepool can be rejuvenated and once again become prosperous and desirable places to live and work.
I could not agree more with the Committee’s findings and recommendations, and I will be pressing the Government to act upon them, but far from being the run-down, crime-ridden backwater portrayed on Channel 4’s “Skint Britain”, I must put it on the record that Hartlepool is a vibrant, welcoming place to which people choose to move despite the negative statistics and the town’s negative portrayal by some. However, like in other coastal communities, the Labour council is struggling to maintain services despite its best efforts. In 2019-20, it faces 40% cuts across all departments and has for the first time been forced to use its reserves in order to balance the books and avoid job losses.
To be frank, the continued underfunding of councils such as Hartlepool’s, the insistence that the majority of any settlement is ring-fenced for children’s or social care, and the removal of the deprivation factor in calculating Government grant funding to areas with high levels of deprivation, such as Hartlepool, is driving them off a fiscal cliff. Services are at breaking point because of the constant cuts and the austerity agenda. Typically in places like Hartlepool, our elderly population is growing, with all the demands that brings from a public health and social care perspective.
Our children’s services are also creaking at the seams, despite an award-winning children’s services team. Council departments simply cannot cope with the growing demands on social care with stretched budgets. In Hartlepool, the rate of looked-after children is, thankfully, declining, but we have child poverty to cope with. We run holiday hunger schemes to keep our children from going hungry. We have schools that are desperately crying out for better funding to provide a good education in a safe and warm environment. We have no Sure Start centres, and youth provision has virtually gone.
Since 2010, local authority funding has been cut by £16 billion, which has clearly had a knock-on effect on services that my constituents expect and rely on. It is not just services for the elderly and the young. Highways, parks, refuse collection, trading standards, libraries, the police and fire services are all affected by the chronic underfunding of local government, and the Government’s threat to push the problem on to the council tax payer and, by default, let local councils take the blame is irresponsible.
Thanks to the efforts of our local Labour council, many services have been kept going, and the number of compulsory redundancies has been kept to a minimum, but at a time when the Lords point to the need for greater investment, the council is suffering death by a thousand cuts.
Hartlepool has created a care academy and aspires to have a centre of excellence. It is addressing respite care to free up beds in acute hospital wards and is tackling dementia care to fill a gap in the market with services run and owned by the public sector, but private sector providers, such as the owners of residential homes, are now ready to jump into that gap because we are not prepared to fund what is right under our nose. It makes me angry that innovative thinking to provide care for our citizens in their own community is not backed up by fair funding. The attacks on council funding need to stop, and fairer measures need to be introduced.