Local Government Finance — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:57 pm on 17th December 2015.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 2:57 pm, 17th December 2015

My Lords, I refer to my local government interests in the register. I extend the customary thanks to the Minister for repeating the Statement, but I can offer few thanks for the substance of the Statement or the malign effects that it will have on local communities and the services on which they rely. The Minister in a previous life was a highly respected council leader. She has earned similar respect in this House. Not for her the shocking lack of understanding displayed by the Prime Minister in his exchange of correspondence with the chief executive of Conservative Oxfordshire about the impact of government policies on local authorities—supported over the last five years,1 remind the House, by the Liberal Democrats.

However, this year's settlement takes us to a new level. A week ago, I spent three hours at a meeting of Newcastle's health scrutiny committee discussing possible cuts in social care and public health provision of an unprecedented severity. The clock is being turned back by 40 years to a time when, as chairman of social services, I helped to transform provision of these key services in Newcastle. A combination of cuts in funding and cost pressures, the latter of which the Government studiously ignore, will next year be reflected in a requirement for the city to save £221 million on a council budget of what had been £280 million in 2011-12. This grim scenario is of course not confined to Newcastle. Councils of all political colours, all over the country, are facing similar pressures, as the Conservative-led Local Government Association—whose chairman is in his place today, and I welcome him—has pointed out. Such pressures are aggravated by new costs such as the so-called national living wage, which will impose a responsibility to pay £330 million extra next year, rising to £834 million by 2020, or the deprivation of liberty assessments amounting to £172 million—again unfunded, like other new burdens.

In his Statement, the Secretary of State declared:

“When local authorities account for a quarter of public spending, it was always the case they would have to carry their share of reducing the largest deficit in post-war history”— words which the Minister has repeated. In fact, of course, local government has taken the largest cut of any part of the public sector or government departments—and, by the way, the Chancellor has still missed his deficit reduction targets.

In this year again, local government is taking a huge hit relative to other departments. One of the few positives to emerge is that, as the LGA had requested, we will now have a four-year budget. As yet, however, the funding formula remains unchanged, and while revenue support grant will disappear by 2020, it is entirely unclear how the increasing reliance on business rates will work in practice given the wide disparity of such income between different authorities. As yet there are no details of how there might be an equalisation scheme, although I understand that the Government may consult on this.

Moreover, the worrying trend of reverting to a 19th-century poor law system for income support, reflected in the localisation of council tax support, is apparently now to be followed by localising the attendance allowance paid to 1.5 million people over 65 with a disability who need personal care, which costs in total some £5 billion. What assurances can the Minister give about how this sum will be allocated and whether it will be ring-fenced? If it is to be ring-fenced, what is the point of the change?

The decision to allow councils to increase council tax by 2% without a referendum in order to support social care is welcome as far as it goes. However, it does not go very far. In Newcastle, we would raise only £1.7 million, which is a fraction of the cuts that are looming over our social care budget; and of course in a city where 70% of council tax payers are in bands A and B, the 2% yields much less than in other, more prosperous parts of the country. The Government have announced their intention of addressing that issue but it is unclear how they will do so, and after all, councils have little time before they have to announce their budgets. In any event, it is unlikely that a new formula will make a radical difference to the kind of figure I have referred to for Newcastle. Similarly, we await details of changes to the new homes bonus, under which Newcastle and many similar authorities have been net contributors to other, more affluent areas.

Public health is another area in which the Government play the three card trick. Having, rightly, restored public health responsibilities to local government, 42 years after Sir Keith Joseph removed them, this Administration imposed an in-year cut of £200 million in the current year and go on to impose in the Statement and the spending review additional cuts of 3.9% in real terms every year until 2020, which amount to a staggering £533 million. These cuts, moreover, will inevitably lead to greater pressure on the NHS, which is itself facing unprecedented financial challenges.

The Government make much of their devolution agenda. What we are witnessing and what today’s settlement exemplifies is that responsibilities for large areas of public services are being devolved without adequate resources to deliver them. Long on rhetoric, short on cash, the Government will the ends and withdraw the means.

I have sought to exemplify some the problems that my city and my constituents will face as a result of today’s announcement. However, of course, these effects will be felt to varying degrees in most local authorities across the country. The House is fortunate in having among its Members on both the Government and Opposition Benches a number of experienced former council leaders—one of whom I suspect will speak to this Statement very shortly in his capacity as the Lib Dem spokesman on local government. However, it also has several former Secretaries of State, none of whom is in their place today, and with all of whom I used to do battle as council leader and subsequently chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. I never thought I would say this but I find, to my surprise, feeling almost nostalgic for those days, given what their successors are now doing. The Statement that has been announced today will inflict great damage to local government in this country. I fear that, again, it is a case of the Government passing the buck but emphatically not passing the bucks.