There is no doubt about the vital role that our local councils have played in supporting our country and the communities they serve through this pandemic. The Government have recognised that by providing unprecedented levels of financial support to councils. Cornwall Council alone has received more than £555 million from the Government to support its work, businesses, communities and households over the past year. I welcome this local government financial settlement, the Government’s continued support to local councils and, indeed, the increase in funding for our councils.
I have listened carefully to the debate, and I am somewhat puzzled by much of what we have heard from those on the Opposition Benches. They criticise the Government for not providing more funding for local authorities, and at the same time they criticise them for allowing councils to increase council tax, as though money that comes from central Government is somehow free money. Well, I have news for everyone: it is all taxpayers’ money, whether it comes from centrally raised or locally raised taxes. We will certainly take no lessons from the Labour party, under which we saw council tax double the last time it was in government.
Of course, it is not just about the amount of money councils get; how they spend it is just as important. Councils need to ensure that they provide value for money to taxpayers and that their funding is focused on the core services that matter most to local people. Sadly, Cornwall Council continues to show that it is unable to do that. All too often, there are examples of how the current administration continually complains that it needs more money from central Government but then seems always to find the money for its own priorities, which regrettably do not always reflect those of the people it is meant to be serving.
My hon. Friend Mrs Murray has already highlighted the tens of thousands of pounds the council wastes every year on continuing to maintain an office in Brussels, even though we voted to leave the EU five years ago. However, most shocking of all is possibly the recent revelation that Cornwall Council paid a staggering £20 million to consultants last year. That is more than double the amount it spent in 2017-18 and amounts to more than £400,000 a week, every week. I struggle to imagine what could possibly need so many consultants to be paid so much Cornish taxpayers’ money. To date, the administration has failed to explain who has been paid the money and for what possible reason. Paying that much money to consultants is bad enough, but when we factor in the fact that in 2020 Cornwall Council had the highest number of officers being paid over £100,000 a year in the south-west, we wonder why it needs all those highly paid consultants as well as 19 officers receiving over £100,000.
Many people are also concerned that the council will use the impact of the past year to further reduce the face-to-face services it provides and to cut back on its physical presence in our towns. Despite being told by the administration that having staff working from home is more efficient, we have seen a reduction in the level of services. One specific issue is the time it takes for local conveyancing searches to be completed. In recent months, it has been taking over 10 weeks for searches to be returned, which has caused no end of stress and anxiety to homebuyers. When challenged as to why it has taken so long, the council blamed the pandemic and the impact of staff working from home. Yet, at the same, it tells us that it is more efficient for staff to work from home. It cannot have it both ways. I ask the Minister to confirm that we expect councils to reopen their face-to-face services and get staff back in their offices as soon as it is safe to do so. Can we also look at what we can do about the delay in local searches? This is clogging up the housing market at a time when hundreds of people are seeking to complete before the end of the stamp duty holiday.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the need for the fair funding review to be completed. It has been well established that the cost of delivering services in rural areas is higher than in urban centres. The Government recognised this through the rural services delivery grant. I thank the Secretary of State for the extension of the grant, but we have been waiting for the fair funding review for too long now. As we emerge from this pandemic there is an urgent need to review the way in which councils are funded, particularly in rural areas, that recognises the additional costs that rural councils face and to ensure that a fit-for-purpose formula is in place. For too long, we have said that the warped funding formula created by the previous Labour Government that favours urban councils and sees them receive a disproportionately high level of funding needs to be addressed. Will the Minister make this an urgent priority in the coming months, so that we can make sure that a fair formula is in place ahead of next year?