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Local Authorities: Essential Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:34 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bird Lord Bird Crossbench 1:34 pm, 24th January 2019

My Lords, it is a great honour to speak to the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. I have no local authority credentials other than that I have been a road sweeper for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and a dustman, and among other things I was the meals-on-wheels driver for a very big round supported by the borough of Westminster. Therefore, I do not come to your Lordships with wonderful arguments, understanding and insights as to how we need to change the way in which we fund our local authorities, but I can talk about some things. Before doing so, I want to say that I was always well treated when I lived in Sheffield as I hid from the London police in the early 1970s. I love to go back to Sheffield to look at all those places where I was made to feel at home—thank you very much indeed.

When 800 local authority libraries have been removed from the world since 2010, and when you understand that we in the House of Lords spend 2.4% of our budget on the Library but the average local authority spends under 1%, you must ask why it is so important for this House. Why are the Government not saying that we are spending too much on our Library? It is because they know that it is essential to the running of things; they know that libraries create what I love to call mental wealth, which means well-being, opportunity and all the other things that bring people out of the mire.

Whenever we talk about a local authority, we are talking about how we deal with the people who have failed in life—we have heard that this morning and we will hear it more today. How do we deal with those who are homeless or those who suffer domestic violence as was used on my mother, at a time when unfortunately there was nobody in the borough of Westminster to help us? All those who are caught out end up on the doorstep of local authorities.

I am old enough, along a few others among us, to remember those days when it was not the local authority’s responsibility to look after our old. Back in the 1960s, it was not the local responsibility, although some people were looked after. Something has happened. Local authorities have had to pick up a lot of the grief that is happening in other parts of society. For instance, the National Health Service is so overwhelmed that it cannot process people and they end up on the need register. On one occasion, when we did a survey of Big Issue vendors, we found that 87% of them—I am not saying that the same is true now; this was about eight years ago—had passed through local authority care and come out at the end as vendors, it having cost more than £1 million. I said at the time in an address to the right honourable David Cameron, “Isn’t it interesting that it cost about a quarter of a million pounds to produce you, but more than £1 million to produce a Big Issue vendor?”

I am concerned that local authorities are increasingly called on by the community. We need to rebuild the community and take the weight off the local authority. But it is not an alternative. We know well that, in the days of the 2010 coalition, an attempt was made to use the idea of the big society as a cover for local cuts. Lots of people in many parts of the country made the point then that it was a terrible soft-shoe shuffle. We have to find a way to take the weight off local authorities, but at the same time we have to admit that, with cuts of 49%, austerity has hit local authorities and stopped them being able to provide libraries or for people who have been caught out in emergencies. If those people are not caught in the early stages of emergency, the emergency becomes heavier, deeper, wider and longer. Therefore, you will never save the money that you need to save. That is why I and many others, in this country and around the world, have always said that you need a shedload of money for austerity. Most of us cannot afford austerity: it is too expensive.

I want to give noble Lords a quick outline of some of the stuff I have been doing—I have not been sitting idle in the three and a half years that I have been here. I have been beavering away in a number of communities and looking at ways to work with them and with local authorities. At the end of November, we had a big conference in Northampton. We did not choose to work there because the “something” hit the fan; we chose Northampton and then afterwards the “something” hit the fan, if you know what I mean. We went there with a particular purpose: we wanted to know how we could support the local authority or local government. How could we support all those people who are working away in the community? We came up with a concept we called “social echo”. We looked at estate agents, housing associations, the local authority and the library, and we looked for ways in which we could stitch their work together to take the weight off the local authority and off those profoundly important charities such as the Hope day centre, which works very well with people caught in homelessness and long-term unemployment. We are trying to stich the community together.

I recommend that every authority in this country should look carefully at how to reinvent the local community and take some of the pressure off local government. At the same time, I castigate everybody who says that there is not enough money for local authorities. You may not have the money now, but you are going to need to spend it later on. As I said in this House a few years ago when we were talking about libraries, if we want to close our libraries down, let us close them down; let us build higher fences around our properties and more prisons. In the end, if you do not make the investment at the right stage, you will have to make it at some other stage.

I have to declare an interest. I am a product of the generosity of the taxpayer, who had to put a shedload of money into me because, in the first instance, they did not spend an awful lot on me.