The Government like to talk about levelling up the country, but sadly their record shows they have done the precise opposite. Since they were first elected in 2010, the Conservative Government have imposed £15 billion-worth of cuts on local authorities, and they did not share the pain equally either. The 10 poorest council areas have faced cuts 18 times bigger than the 10 richest, as the Government embedded inequality. Initially, the Conservatives’ failed ideological austerity stalled Britain’s economic recovery after the global financial crash. Last year, they left the country so woefully unprepared for the covid-19 pandemic that we are now suffering the highest death rate in Europe and the deepest recession of any major economy.
Right now, many of our towns and high streets are at breaking point. After a decade of Conservative cuts and now the recession, they are on their last legs. Councils cannot support high street businesses because the Government have left councils with a £2.5 billion funding black hole, after breaking their promise to compensate them fully for the costs of tackling covid-19.
Conservative changes to planning rules allow developers to convert shops into low-quality flats, so that they can never reopen as shops again, creating dead zones on our high streets. Now the Government plan to choke off spending on the hope of rapid economic recovery by forcing council tax rises on families already struggling to pay the bills in these unprecedented times.
The Government spent the past decade levelling the country down, stripping out jobs, assets and investments from parts of the country they chose to hold back. They have closed nearly 800 libraries, 750 youth centres, 1,300 Sure Start centres and more than 800 public toilets. That is political vandalism on our high streets, but it goes much further than that. They have deliberately pulled our country apart by deepening and entrenching inequality. Whole regions have been starved of investment, leaving them without the infrastructure, jobs or skills to attract good new employers. People should not have to leave the towns they live in to find a decent job because all that is available back home are the low-skill, low-paid, insecure jobs that are a hallmark of this Government’s economic neglect.
As my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) have said, opportunity should be open to everyone, wherever they live. Aspiration should not be capped because someone lives in a part of the country that the Conservatives chose to abandon. Social care should be an entitlement, not a lucky dip. Our high streets deserve a brighter future than the long stretches of graffiti-covered shutters that are the visible legacy of Conservative misrule.
As my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) point out, the towns fund is a wholly inadequate fix for how the lost Conservative decade has blighted our high streets. The Government stripped out £15 billion of funding, and now they expect gratitude for giving less than a quarter of that money back.
Some funding is better than no funding, and we support those areas lucky enough to get something, but what about everywhere else? The vast majority of towns and high streets are getting nothing at all, as we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper and my hon. Friend Justin Madders. Instead of the open and fair process that communities want to see, the Conservatives are stitching up backroom deals that carve most towns out of the funding they so desperately need.