Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Part of Department for Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 5:36 pm on 2nd July 2019.

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Photo of Gareth Snell Gareth Snell Labour/Co-operative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 5:36 pm, 2nd July 2019

It is an honour to follow Priti Patel. Being married to a councillor, she will appreciate most acutely the tough decisions that councillors must make. Let me begin my speech by thanking councillors of all political parties for their work. Looking around the Chamber this afternoon, I see many Members who I know have served as councillors, in senior leadership roles or as back-benchers. I believe that one of them is still serving as a local authority member today. No councillor stands for election to deal with a five-year budget forecast. They do so for good reason, to help the local communities. We should always remember that, regardless of the decisions that they are forced to make.

That leads me neatly to the main points that I want to make. Layla Moran began by talking about the overall global figures that are affecting local government finances. The speeches that we have heard from Members on both sides of the House today have shown that every Member, everywhere, has a series of problems that can be attributed to the way in which the local authority is either run or funded. I agree with Kevin Hollinrake that when this is fixed, a rising tide will lift all those problems. Sadly, however, that rising tide will simply drown some of them, either because they cannot keep pace or because they are already enmeshed in problems that no amount of additional funding will solve.

What we need to think about—and I offer this as a radical suggestion which I hope the Government will consider—is moving away from the idea that we fund councils, fund the police service and fund clinical commissioning groups, and adopt a place-based approach to the way in which money goes into a community. One of the things that we do very well on the Public Accounts Committee is following the taxpayer pound. We have noticed continually that consequential impacts of a decision by a clinical commissioning group will drive up the costs of a service in a local authority. The decision by a police commissioner to close a police station—as is happening in Stoke-on-Trent—pushes up the incidence of antisocial behaviour. It will then be said that it is the council’s responsibility. Littering because of the lack of a recycling service will become detritus, with bricks left on streets. It becomes vandalism.

So many things happen not because of local authority funding, but because of the way in which we fund our entire public service. If the Government and, I hope, our own Front-Benchers—who I can see are listening—would seriously consider that place-based funding, we could eradicate some of the problems without necessarily having to throw lots of money at them. I know that that will not be easy, but if we are serious about a sustainable long-term public sector, we are going to have be honest about it.

The same goes for our social care funding arrangements. The National Audit Office report shows that 80% of social care budgets are overspent. I am pretty sure that if the Ministers at the Dispatch Box were to design a system today for funding adult social care, they would not say, “Let’s take the value of a property from the 1970s and its total value across an entire geographical area determined by a review in the 1970s and say that incremental increases of 2% every year is the best way to fund adult social care.” It is the way that we do it, but it is not the way we would design. If we are genuinely serious about tackling the funding issues in local government, we are going to have to look at the way in which we fund these things long-term and not simply tinker at the edges hoping to massage the figures so that marginal constituencies in one part of the country are better off at the expense of safer constituencies for Opposition parties elsewhere, which is what we talk about in fair funding formulas if we are being brutally honest.