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Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:02 pm on 5th February 2020.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 2:02 pm, 5th February 2020

The Minister says that, but then he actually has a situation such as the following one, based on the funding figures put out at the moment—I accept we have not had the final decision. Under the formula for public health funding—and I supported public health funding going back to local councils—County Durham was forecast to lose £19 million, or 35% of its budget, whereas Surrey will increase its budget by £14 million. I am sorry, but that just cannot be right when comparing the two areas in terms of deprivation and health needs. The Minister may say what he likes, but in the past 10 years that has been the direction of travel. If he levels it up and changes it suddenly as Northern Powerhouse Minister, he will have my 100% support, but I doubt whether he will be able to do that. The promises that he and others have made to northern councils are going to be very limited.

On the point about need, there are two areas with which all local councils have been struggling—adult social care and looked-after children. Again, to work on the basis that need for all councils in those areas is the same is to start from the wrong premise. For example, since 2010 demand for children’s social care has increased by £7.2 billion but central Government support has halved. That has pushed demand on to local councils, which have had to make very difficult decisions. As my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne said, these services are not optional—they must be provided, by law. If we look at the national figures, in 2010, 54 children per 10,000 of population were in social care. By 2019, that had risen to 65—an increase of 20%. If we look at the figures for the north-east, the figure is 101 children in care per 10,000 of population. In the south-east of England, the figure is 53, and in Surrey there are only 37 children in care per 10,000 of population.

The demand on councils such as County Durham and others in the north-east, and in other urban areas, is far greater than it is on Surrey. Demand for statutory services, which councils have to provide, is going up and they are very costly. At the same time, core funding from the Government is being taken away from some areas and redistributed to areas such as Surrey, which is not just flatlining but receiving an increase in funding. I am sorry, but that just cannot be fair.

I said at the start of my speech that the direction of travel has been pork barrel politics of the worst type, doling out money to people who vote Conservative in certain parts of the country. The problem for the Conservative party is that the pork barrel has got bigger. The big test will be whether the Government can actually spread that around the country and meet all the pledges they have made. I doubt whether they can, because this has not just happened in local government funding. On fire and police, the direction of travel has not just been cuts, but moving revenue collection to local taxpayers. For example, the Government announced an increase in the amount of money going into policing, but that has been moved on to local taxpayers. Councils like Durham County Council are less able, because of their council tax base, to raise that type of financing.

I do not like using the phrase “fairer funding formula review”, because I do not think it is that at all. I doubt whether the new system will be, either. A lot of promises have been made and we shall have to wait and see whether they will actually be met. I will work with anyone to ensure that County Durham gets a fair hearing. I am sad that my new Conservative colleagues are not here today to join me in demanding fairer funding for County Durham, but I will certainly press the case for County Durham to receive the fair funding deal it wants.

I will end with a point raised by the Minister. I came from local government. I was a councillor for 11 years. I respect, and am very grateful for, the work done by councillors of all parties. They are remunerated at a very low level for the amount of work they do. However, I find it a bit difficult to take it from this Government, who have demonised certain people in local government over the past few years and used them as scapegoats for decisions that have been taken—[Interruption.] The Minister says codswallop, but I remember—as I am sure we will witness again in the next few weeks in the local government elections—the Government using the issue of pay and so on in local government to argue that local councils were being profligate. Those are diversionary tactics to remove attention from the core issue, which is that the Government have decimated local government over the past 10 years. We shall wait and see happens in the review, but I shall continue to make the case to ensure that the people of County Durham get the funding and services they require from what is a very good council, and to ensure that the Government have a formula funding that is not only fair but equal across the country, and recognises need.