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Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:04 pm on 5th February 2020.

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Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole 3:04 pm, 5th February 2020

It is a pleasure to follow Tim Farron, whom I always listen to with care, and the several maiden speeches from both sides of the House, especially those of my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for Orpington (Mr Bacon) and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker). It is great to hear such strong voices on the Government Benches, and I look forward to further contributions.

Local government in Dorset has changed significantly over the past year, with nine councils merging into two in the run-up to the elections. My constituency is one of only two that covers both new unitary authorities. Of course, there were many reasons for the changes, but one of the main drivers was financial. Back-office savings, the rationalisation of office space, and a reduction in the number of senior staff have been painful but necessary decisions to ensure that frontline services can continue to be maintained.

Despite the changes, both Dorset Council and BCP Council remain in a challenging financial position. Additional funding is welcome, of course—I always say that—and it has added to both councils’ spending power. However, that is often offset by greater demands, not least in relation to adult social care and children’s services. Dorset has many advantages. It is a great place to live and work, but is also a great place to retire to, with an above average 17% of the population over the age of 70. That proportion is growing, so we are facing adult social care challenges. Social care is by far the largest part of the budget, placing considerable strain on our local councils.

I therefore welcome the Government’s promise to produce a social care Green Paper. A long-term solution is absolutely required, and I particularly welcome the recognition in the Prime Minister’s amendment this afternoon of

“the pressures on adult and children’s social care” and the move to a fairer funding formula. Much has been said by Opposition Members about the fairer funding formula, but it will be absolutely crucial for residents in Mid Dorset and North Poole. We need a fairer settlement that reflects the challenges of living in rural areas. My hon. Friend Steve Double made an intervention at the outset of the debate noting that deprivation was not only found in inner-city areas, because it is found in all our constituencies and in rural areas.

However, despite what we have heard from Opposition Members, the majority of the increases in council funding this year have been seen in urban areas. Once again, shire counties have received comparatively less. The shadow Minister, Andrew Gwynne, refused to take my intervention earlier, so I will tell him now—I am pleased to see him still in his place—that rural and shire counties receive an average of £240 per person. That is the point that my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake was making in several interventions, but he is better than I am at intervening. Rural and shire counties receive £240 per person compared with £419 for metro- politan and city authorities and £601 for inner-London authorities. That is why it is crucial that the Government grapple with this issue in their fair funding review, as I know that they are doing.