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Local Authorities: Essential Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:00 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 2:00 pm, 24th January 2019

My Lords, I want to take up the theme my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester began with. Bradford Council, looking to cut as many non-statutory and non-essential services as possible, has just closed almost all its remaining public toilets. This is both an important local issue and a historical issue for Saltaire. Saltaire was built partly to improve public sanitation, moving Titus Salt’s works and workforce out of the cholera and typhoid-infected city of Bradford and housing them in terraces with back alleys wide enough for donkey carts to empty their toilets regularly. In the 1850s, that was state-of-the-art public hygiene. Now that the village has become a world heritage site, we welcome busloads of visitors, both schoolchildren on educational visits and retired sightseers. The first thing they ask when they get off the bus is, of course, where the toilets are. They are closed, until some local voluntary society can find the money and the staff to reopen them. So Saltaire has come full circle: we are back with an acute problem of public hygiene, and a council that says that the local shops will just have to offer visitors their facilities; private provision for a core public need—and yes, there is no disabled access.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, that in a local community like Saltaire, which is increasingly professional and prosperous, there is some prospect that local activity on a voluntary basis can supply some of this need. However, four to five miles down the road, deprived and depressed communities in the centre of Bradford need help. That has to be public help, because people who are just about managing do not have the spare capacity and the self-confidence to take up things which are left by public services.

I do not entirely blame Bradford Council, in spite of the threat this poses to our local shops and the business rates the council draws from them. Like other councils across Yorkshire, Bradford has lost nearly half its central government funding in the past 10 years, and is expected to lose more within the next two to three years. Adult social care costs are rising as the local population ages, and the need for children’s social care is rising as school budgets are also squeezed, and as families on marginal incomes fail to cope. As elsewhere, libraries, museums, open spaces and road repairs have all been cut. The current forecast is that the council will nevertheless run a deficit of over £60 million in the next two years. Next door, Leeds estimates that it will have a financing gap of £100 million by 2020-21.

I blame the Conservative Government and its predecessors, through the coalition to Labour under Blair and Brown, and back to Major and Thatcher, for the financial crisis that local government is now in. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that the 13 years of Labour government before 2010 were not a golden age for local authorities and local authority funding either. Margaret Thatcher was deeply unsympathetic to local democracy and local government. The fiasco of the poll tax left behind an unreformed council tax system as the primary source of local revenue, topped up by central grants which were shaped by party-political considerations more than local need. I remember the years in which we paid higher taxes on our house in Labour-run Bradford than in the larger house we had in Conservative-run Wandsworth. I fear that, under the new funding formula, we may return to something like that.

As several Members have said, England has become the most centralised state in the democratic world. The Government have been offering devolution packages, with some extra funding, to city regions—although tied to what Ministers in Government think matters, not what local representatives prefer—but the devolution process also now seems to be stuck. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and other noble Lords said, England is also the most geographically unequal country in Europe, which is evidence that no recent Government—I stress that again to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham—have invested sufficient priority in fiscal redistribution or in regional regeneration.

The weakening of local government has contributed to popular alienation from government as such, from which the country now suffers. Looked at from the former council estates of north Bradford, government is remote and hostile: local police are thinner on the ground, local services have shrunk, parks and playing fields have been neglected or closed, and public transport has been privatised and is infrequent and expensive. No wonder so many people in places like that voted “sod off” to political elites in the referendum two years ago; the political system seems to have abandoned them, and they see Westminster politics as a party game in London. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that merging local authorities into larger units will further weaken local community and local accountability, and we ought to realise the political and psychological cost of that.

Some within the Government clearly do not see the provision of public services through local government as a necessary or essential activity. Continuing cuts year by year, which in real terms will have reduced central government funding for local authorities by 60% by 2019-20, without any attempt to reform and widen local sources of revenue, will cripple and demoralise local authorities and their workforces. I suppose it is sadly appropriate that the first councils to go effectively bankrupt are Conservative-led. Perhaps that explains why no Conservative Members of this House who have local government experience are speaking in this debate.