Local Government Finance (England)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:46 pm on 10th February 2021.

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Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield 5:46 pm, 10th February 2021

Before coming to this place, I had the privilege of sitting as a Conservative councillor in Durham unitary authority and Darlington Borough Council, which cover my Sedgefield constituency, and as such I fully understand the importance of these settlements. I declare an interest: due to the delayed elections I am still a councillor in both, although I decline the allowances and I have no executive responsibility.

In recent years, there has been a clear apprehension in both councils, as the settlements were due to be announced, about what level of savings would be required and whether they would get their fair share. I am in regular discussions with Durham and Darlington councils, and I have been pleased to observe the extra support delivered this year—£147 million extra has been received between them since March. Their natural pessimism has proved unfounded. I applaud both councils for the speed with which they delivered the Government support to the point of need. I thank the outstanding volunteers and council employees throughout the constituency for standing up and supporting their residents.

For both councils, a longer-term settlement needs to be delivered as soon as practicable. They fully understand the exceptional circumstances that have frustrated things this year, but they reiterate the need to give longer planning horizons as soon as possible. When the longer-term settlements are determined, I ask that a review of the metrics for future funding be undertaken, because I find it very difficult to understand, for example, why a county such as Durham, which covers 223,000 hectares, is not classed as rural. It is that sort of conundrum that underpins concerns about whether the fair funding review and the shared prosperity fund will reach my communities as they should. I remain perplexed about why the Labour-controlled Durham County Council is to spend £50 million on a new county hall in the centre of Durham. In my opinion, it would be better if it remained where it is.

I have concerns that the push towards local council tax funding will disproportionately affect communities where the underlying affordability is poorer and the demand for adult social care is typically higher. I ask the Minister to incorporate that consideration into his evaluation of future funding models, and potentially look for a different model to support adult social care.

One of the biggest concerns for my authorities is the lack of understanding by Whitehall officials of what our reality is. That is why I believe it is particularly important that the proposed relocation of Departments, whether the Treasury, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government or any other Department, is not to another metropolitan centre. If officials and Ministers are to fully understand the world outside our cities, they need to get up close and see them. There is nowhere better than the Tees Valley Mayor’s proposed location of Teesside.

I welcome the Government’s settlements this year and their plans to level up and build back better. I see initiatives such as the fair funding review and the levelling-up fund as critical pillars in the delivery of those plans, and I hope that the future funding of our local government allows it to play its full part.