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Local Authorities: Essential Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:23 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing) 12:23 pm, 24th January 2019

My Lords, I refer to my local government interests in the register. In my 52 years as a Newcastle City councillor, I have lived through difficult times for local government. In all that time, I cannot recall so many Conservative councils criticising a Conservative Government for their failure to fund adequately the provision of local services, as is now the case.

The failure to update the council tax system, which is now 27 years old, and to take into account the widening gap between authorities like mine—and others in the north-east—and those in the more prosperous parts of England in the amount that council tax yields has exacerbated the problem. It is ludicrous to leave unchanged a system that allows council tax on a band H property near where I live, on the market for £4 million, to be only three times the amount payable by residents in the council ward I represent in a band A property worth £40,000. I concede immediately that the Labour Government should have addressed this issue, as I argued at the time, but it is all the more essential to do so when the pressure on budgets becomes ever more heavy and government cuts bite ever more deeply.

It is sobering to recall that, between 2010 and 2017, homelessness nationally rose by just under 40%, the number of looked-after children by just under 11% and the number of people aged over 65 requiring care by 14.3%. Cuts to environmental services, culture, highways, transport, housing and planning services range from 14.65% to a staggering 52.8%. Meanwhile, the failure adequately to fund the NHS and the police service has added to the problems facing individuals, communities and the councils which seek to serve them. Moreover, we all know that GP practices are under great pressure.

I remind the House that, for five years, the Lib Dems were party to the damage inflicted on individuals and communities not only by the cuts to which I have alluded but by a range of other policies. These include the abysmal impact of universal credit, with 40,000 new council residents affected by so-called welfare reforms; the bedroom tax, which in Newcastle siphons off £2 million a year from 3,000 residents and the local economy; the dismantling of regional offices of government which have facilitated an understanding in Whitehall—in fairness, they had been established by a previous Conservative Government, but now of course they are no longer there—so that the diverse needs of different parts of the country are not addressed; and the failure to invest in improving highways and rail services in the north-east.

As the Public Accounts Committee reported last July, between 2011 and 2017, government funding of local authorities fell by 49.1% in real terms. In Newcastle, that translates into cuts that currently stand at £270 million a year, rising over the next four years to £327 million, with £16.9 million required in the upcoming 2019-20 budget. The loss is already £1,000 per head of population and £2,550 per household, rising to £3,000 per household by 2022. These figures come after raising council tax next year by the permitted amount of £5.2 million and business rates by £1.8 million or 1.7%.

Yet we have to cope with a rising demand for support services. In Newcastle, some 12,000 children aged under 16 live in low-income families—25.4% of their age group compared with a national average of 16.8%. Those are the 2011 census figures; they will be significantly worse by now. The highest level of poverty is to be found in households with children aged from birth to four years old. Many of these families and others rely on food banks for sustenance. The country’s busiest food bank is located in the ward I represent. In Newcastle, we have just under 5,000 people receiving ongoing and long-term support, 3,300 of them aged over 65, with 2,000 receiving short-term support from the council’s reablement service. Last year saw an increase of 36% in adults receiving safeguarding. However, the pressure on staff is tremendous and we struggle to maintain the extent and quality of the services we supply.

Some 44 years ago, as chairman of the social services committee, I inaugurated the city’s welfare rights service. Last year, it helped 19,000 residents to secure £30 million-worth of unclaimed benefits and supplied 6,500 with debt advice. It is a costly service for the council but at least for the moment we are continuing to provide it. I hope that that remains possible, but this is not a service required by statute, and without a change in government policy, there must be a risk as to its future and thereby to the people who desperately need support.

Depressing as this litany of problems and needs is, the damage to local government and the people it serves does not end there. Let us consider the impact of right to buy, which has led to a huge extension of private rented sector and high-rent properties without councils being able to use the proceeds to build genuinely affordable properties to replace them. The Government are belatedly planning some support for new social housing, but their concept of affordability is still connected to an inflated private sector market at the national level which bears little relation to the economy of regions like the north-east. In any event, the numbers are too few.

The sector has also faced pressure to outsource services, just as has been required of the probation service and the Prison Service, with disastrous results as we have frequently discussed in this Chamber. The role of local councils in education has been drastically reduced, with all manner of organisations replacing them, many deemed by Ofsted to be failing the children consigned to them. In one case in Newcastle, they simply closed down and abandoned a brand new building. Talking about young people, we have to recall that the coalition Government also did away with the important Sure Start programme. In addition to this litany of problems, we have a police service that is undermanned and overstretched, like so many others, with a significant reduction in neighbourhood policing reducing teams covering two or three council wards to single individuals.

This debate will exemplify the parlous state of local government today. I sympathise with Liberal Democrat Members of this House whose communities are suffering from government policies that I and other Members have criticised, no doubt to be amplified by other speakers. But I have to remind them that much of the damage to local councils and their residents or employees emanates directly from the coalition Government of which they were a part. An apology would be welcome.

In fairness, their former partners appear to be threatening to make matters worse. The Government are now consulting on a new formula for their funding of local government. This would remove deprivation from the formula covering waste disposal, public transport, libraries, leisure, homelessness and recreation, and replace it with a simple population basis, restricting the deprivation factor to adult social care, children’s services, public health, highways maintenance, flood defence and fire and rescue services. It is quite clearly a cynical attempt to divert financial support from urban areas to Conservative-controlled areas. Can the Minister say whether, and if so when, this House will have an opportunity to discuss any of these proposed changes? Above all, at a time when the Government proclaim that austerity is over—for too many people a questionable assertion—can they at least pledge to provide the funding required to provide services of the extent and quality that is desperately needed?