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Local Government Responsibilities: Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:43 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution) 4:43 pm, 18th March 2020

I think that is right. When councils have to look elsewhere for funding, a risk naturally comes with that. The National Audit Office produced a report on this and the Government share these concerns. The Public Works Loan Board interest rate was doubled overnight by the Government, because they are concerned about the exposure that councils face in buying assets as investments. The NAO expressed the same concern. In a two-year period, councils have been buying investment portfolio assets of £6 billion. Why? Because they are desperate to see income from other places, but this is office accommodation and in retail, sometimes not even in the area that the council is responsible for. The Government response is to double the Public Works Loan Board rate instead of addressing the fundamental reason why councils have to look elsewhere for funding, which feels illogical. We have to make sure that the base funding for councils is absolutely where it needs to be.

We are coming to the greatest test of local government, public service and society that any of us have seen in our lifetime. It will test us all. It will test the fabric of society and test public services to breaking point, at a time when they are built on extremely weak foundations. I am genuinely fearful for how we can continue this in a sustained period. For a short time, they will make it work. They will roll their sleeves up and work together. They will create a partnership at a local level and find a way through it, but the Government know full well that this is not a crisis that will last weeks or even months. A sustained response will be required and the Government will have to make sure that they give local government the funding that they need to provide the critical response. We also need to manage public expectation.