Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Part of Department for Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 5:27 pm on 2nd July 2019.

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Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham 5:27 pm, 2nd July 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Mr Jones. I normally agree with him on so many things, but since he touched on the Conservative party leadership contest, let me say that there is a hustings for Conservative councillors taking place at this very moment at the Local Government Association conference. Of course, they are at the forefront of public service and our local communities, and they are proud Conservatives in the role they play in local government. I had better declare an interest: I am married to a Conservative councillor, so I will double down and reiterate that point.

I think all Members would agree that local government stands at the forefront of the delivery of so many services across our country, and that so many of our constituents depend on those services. I think it is fair to say, on the basis of the comments we have heard, that we all know there are challenges with that across our constituencies. It is appropriate that we should debate local government and the MHCLG estimates on the day that the Local Government Association holds its conference in Bournemouth, because councils are responsible for the delivery of so many vital services in our communities. I want to touch on a number of them, including housing, adult social care and supporting children with special needs, with reference to the challenges of growing demand.

Much of this has been mentioned already, but I would like to give some examples from Essex, where we also have funding pressures. It is not a policy of discrimination, if I may say so in reply to the points made by the right hon. Member for North Durham. Despite facing a tight squeeze on the funds they receive from central Government—a squeeze that started before 2010—local authorities have worked hard, and we should pay tribute to all councils, whatever their composition, because they have all worked hard to balance their books.

We know that efficiencies have been made. We know that local authorities have been innovative: services have been shared, procurement strategies changed, and some services reduced or changed. But rising demand has put councils at a tipping point where they now need some increases in resource from central Government, certainty about medium-term settlements and more flexibility over the powers they have and the ways they can generate income.

In the amazing and incredible county of Essex, the county council has delivered £311 million of savings over the last four years, a significant sum, and it is working to make a further £176 million of savings by 2021-22. The reason for those savings is to ensure that resources are naturally focused on investing in adult social care and the council’s outstanding children’s services. It received an outstanding Ofsted score, and I am very proud of the council for its sheer determination and the work it has done to receive that score. But the savings target is a stretch, because there is little left to cut. There is little more that the council can slice off because demand on services is growing at a startling rate. For adult services, we see a growing number of service users who use services for longer and have more complex needs. Over the next decade, the number of residents in Essex aged over 80 will rise by 60% and the number of those aged over 90 will double. There are also growing numbers of adults with learning disabilities who we want to support as much as possible. That is the right and compassionate thing to do, and we want to provide fairness and opportunities in doing so.

We must see the Government do more to give councils such as Essex the resources to meet these needs. We also need to see the Government recognise that our councils need more resources to support children’s services and those with special needs and disabilities. Layla Moran also mentioned that in her opening remarks, and that touches on education, health and care plans too. While councils’ budgets have been squeezed, they have had to provide for more services and new responsibilities, and it is right that we all recognise that.

The introduction and roll-out of education, health and care plans has caused a 35% increase across the county in the number of pupils covered by EHCPs in the four years between 2013-14 and 2017-18. It is right that we recognise the impact that is having on budgets for supporting children with special educational needs, because it has not been met by the high needs funding block.

Councils now face the challenge of carrying deficits and they do not know what the Government will do to address that. In Essex, the deficit is now £15 million and it is set to double. Across the country, it could hit £1.6 billion by 2020-21. That challenge needs to be addressed. We have all heard about funding reforms and we have all participated in many debates and presented the issues to Ministers, stressing that those matters will have to be addressed through the comprehensive funding review and fair funding review, when they come. Those reviews must deliver genuine reform. We cannot tinker around the edges any more.

The process must include addressing the regional inequalities that other hon. Members have mentioned in funding for councils such as Essex. Despite the growing levels of demand on services, Essex is underfunded compared to many other areas. In Essex, the funding level is £271 per person per year for services, whereas the figure elsewhere is much higher, doubling to £563 per person in parts of London. As a result of those pressures, the council is looking at making very difficult decisions just to close the £176 million finding gap.

At the moment, the council is consulting on proposals to change library services, which could lead to seven of the eight libraries in the Witham constituency closing if community management proposals do not come forward. I should add that that is not the sole answer when it comes to addressing library services. The total budget for libraries is about £13 million, and, while there may be some merit in looking at ways in which to bring more community management and involvement into our libraries and modernise services, the potential impact on our communities is significant. I do not think anyone in the House can dispute that, especially given that reductions in the libraries budget will make barely a dent in the £176 million savings target.

No one will be surprised to learn that I have met many residents throughout my constituency who are campaigning passionately to save our libraries, including those in Wickham Bishops, Kelvedon and Coggeshall. They want those vital services and facilities to remain open. I hope that the Government will reflect on what they can do in the long term to continue to safeguard the community lifelines about which so many of us feel so strongly.

The issue of planning and development is highly controversial in many parts of the country, but it is incredibly controversial from an Essex perspective. We want to see communities, not housing estates, being built. In Essex, and especially in my part of Essex, we know that the building of new homes is absolutely right because it gives families more security, including financial security, but we are aware of the challenges that local authorities face in respect of the five-year land supply.

My communities are open-minded about development, but they are frustrated by a lack of infrastructure and a lack of support. We must be radical in our use of, for instance, the new homes bonus to support more infrastructure, and change the way in which we support local government funding across the country.