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Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:16 pm on 5th February 2020.

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Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Labour/Co-operative, Vauxhall 3:16 pm, 5th February 2020

I congratulate all my colleagues who have made their maiden speech today, including Mr Bacon, who is no longer here, with whom I serve on the London Assembly.

As a former councillor and a current member of the London Assembly, I am delighted to speak on an issue that is so important to us all. Local government may not be the hottest topic on everyone’s lips, but the decisions made by our councillors on local regeneration, housing, bins and potholes are important—many councillors have been taking pictures with potholes for their council websites—and they matter to the people we all represent.

Our local councils play a crucial part in all our communities and make a massive impact on our day-to-day lives, but the reality is that local government has suffered over the last 10 years under this Conservative Government and the coalition Government before them. Councils up and down the country have been crippled by budget cuts, and in Lambeth we lost over half of our core funding from central Government between 2010 and 2018. Lambeth Council has been forced to make over £200 million of savings just to make the books balance.

At the same time, the pressure on our councils has shot up. Social care has become a massive issue across the country. In Lambeth, we have also seen the number of families in temporary accommodation almost double between 2012 and 2019, at a time when the cost of housing and temporary accommodation has increased. Councils in England are spending 78% more on temporary accommodation than they did five years ago.

One of the biggest challenges we have seen in Lambeth has been the response to the Grenfell fire disaster. Lambeth has 122 medium-to-high-rise blocks and although the £600 million fund from the Government to remove dangerous cladding is welcome, that is just a small pot. The money must be spread across the entirety of the country and it will not be enough to cover the vital work to provide the fire safety improvements that residents deserve, nor will it reduce the horrific amount of time that it has taken some private block owners to remove hazardous cladding from their buildings. Councils and local authorities were not responsible for the regulatory failures that led to Grenfell, yet they are having to pick up the pieces, out of squeezed budgets, to make their areas safer. It is time for the Government to support our councils and provide the funding not just to remove dangerous cladding, but to provide other critical safety work needed in social blocks and to give powers and funding to councils to confiscate private blocks that fail to remove cladding and make their residents safe.

It is not just on the council level that the Government are failing administrations. Here in London, the Government are passing the buck to the Greater London Authority. Unfortunately, we have seen a stark rise in violent crime in the capital over the past few years. The Metropolitan police are taking the issue seriously, but they have been let down by this Government because their funding has also been cut. Thankfully we have a Mayor, in Sadiq Khan, who recognises the need for urgent funding. Just last week, he announced an increase to the City Hall precept in council tax, which will provide almost £15.7 million to fast-track the introduction of 600 new officers. I am sure all Londoners will welcome that change and I applaud our Mayor for taking that action, but why should a Labour Mayor be raising taxes to pay for a Conservative manifesto promise? If the Conservatives party wants authorities to deliver on its manifesto promises, perhaps it should give councils and authorities greater powers to raise funds through sensible borrowing for investment or through progressive taxation systems, instead of tying their legs and forcing the ideology of austerity on councils.

What links all these things is the fact that the Government continue to pass the buck on many of the issues that have a big impact on people’s day-to-day lives. It is councils that take the blame when council tax goes up but bin collections go down because our authorities have to fill the gaps left by the Government. In London, it is the Mayor who has taken the flack for increasing his council tax precept when the Government have cut the funding for the Met police since 2010. This is not bold governance; it is political opportunism, at the expense of hard-working councillors and local authorities. I urge the Government to take responsibility and give our local government bodies the funding they urgently deserve.