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Local Authorities: Essential Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:07 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 2:07 pm, 24th January 2019

I thank the many noble Lords who have taken part today, contributing to such a wide-ranging and excellent debate on the vital nature of the services on which local people and communities depend. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests, which records that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association and have been a councillor on Kirklees Council since 1987. It is not surprising that the debate today has focused on funding of local government and its services. However, I want to start by thinking about the services and their delivery which touch the lives of individuals from cradle to grave.

Children’s services take responsibility for children who are neglected, abused, or who have no family to call their own. The growing demands on children’s services are well documented, and many noble Lords have drawn the attention of your Lordships’ House to the large shortfall in funding and the growing demands on children’s services; my noble friends Lord Scriven and Lady Thornhill, the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, have all talked in different ways about the crisis in children’s services and about how the Government must address it. Youth services too have taken a battering during the years of cuts to local government, and it is therefore no surprise that anti-social behaviour and youth offending is rising. Again, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, drew attention to that.

Local authorities ensure the provision of basic universal services such as waste collection and disposal. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, in the only contribution from the Conservative Benches, drew attention to the importance of street cleaning as a measure of how well regarded a local place is and therefore how important it is. My noble friend Lady Randerson spoke eloquently and expertly on the topic of transport: enabling safe travel, either by subsidised bus services or on roads safe for all, whether they be drivers, cyclists or pedestrians.

Basic human needs are met through provision for and regulation of housing. The noble Lord, Lord Best, who is an expert on the matter, gave us eight minutes of erudition on the topic. There is commitment from local authorities to ensure provision of services for frail elderly people and a growing number of adults with lifelong disability—either physical or learning disabilities or mental health needs. We have heard from several noble Lords on this topic: my noble friend Lord Scriven—about funding problems and some solutions—my noble friend Lady Thomas and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. Adult social care is in crisis, with the Government sadly having failed to publish their long-awaited Green Paper. As many have pointed out, the gap between the funding available and that required is very large and getting wider by the year.

I move on to libraries. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for again bringing them to our attention. Libraries, parks, play areas, sports pitches, swimming pools, food inspectors, environmental protection, museums, cultural events and much more besides are important provision by local authorities. When the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, raised the issue, I was thinking that in my borough of Kirklees we have no public toilets, which is an astonishing and dreadful state of affairs. The final event in our lives is also provided by local authorities, who have responsibility for crematoria and burials.

As this debate has demonstrated, local authorities provide a wide array of disparate services. Whitehall and the Government need to make up their mind whether this wide range of services is a necessary or even essential part of local government. Naturally, the future funding of local government will be based on that decision.

Let me help. Consider a child growing up in a dysfunctional family. Proactive support from locally provided services through children’s centres, family support services, targeted young people’s services and access to subsidised sport and leisure facilities together have helped both the child and the family. There is less anti-social behaviour locally, fewer children excluded from school and more young people making the most of their abilities.

Think about an older person: retired, on their own with family moved far away. The local library has been closed, the local authority sport centre has become more market-driven and the subsidised rates for indoor bowling and dance classes are priced beyond what they can afford. The local park, which was once a place for a gentle walk, has had its upkeep reduced, so it has become much less attractive for a single person.

Both of those are generalised accounts of real incidents that I have come across as a councillor. I have recounted them to illustrate the blindingly obvious fact to all those in local government that the range of services provided are an interlocking web of essential services that make a real difference to the lives of people in every community. Services that enable individuals to make the most of their lives and help prevent more serious incidents of ill health or criminal behaviour, for example, save significant public funding in the longer term.

The totality of locally provided public services is much bigger than the sum of its parts. Responsive and responsible local leaders enable their communities to flourish. The array of services knits together to create a place where people are safe, community cohesion is a positive force for good, businesses want to invest, town and village centres are vibrant, and volunteers are well supported in the services they provide.

The biggest challenges we face as a country depend on locally provided and delivered services. Climate change and air quality rely on local authorities making radical change to their place. The future of social care absolutely depends on local authorities and the local NHS working co-operatively and independently to meet needs effectively. Meeting the desperate need for good-quality housing in the end relies on local authorities planning and providing for their place, their communities and the people they serve.

That, of course, leads me to funding. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, has criticised the Liberal Democrats for supporting cuts to local government funding. Unfortunately, he forget that the Labour Chancellor at the time argued for £3 billion of cuts to local government. All parties have to take responsibility for insufficiently funding local government, and all parties need to work together to find a solution.

Many noble Lords have drawn attention to the serious state of funding of local services, and I thank them for what they have said on the topic, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and my noble friends Lord Scriven and Lady Thornhill. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, has drawn attention to the review of the council tax system, which has to be carried out. Everyone has contributed to point out the fact that funding of local government is broken and needs to be mended.

The varying ability of local authorities to raise funding and their reliance on council tax and business rates is fine in theory, but has to be tempered in practice by an acknowledgement by the Government that authority areas are not equally able to raise sufficient funds to meet the same level of local needs. It is of great concern that media reports indicate that the Government are considering a significant reduction in the weighting in the fair funding regime for a deprivation score. As others have said, this will result in poorer areas having even less funding available than now. These are the very same local authorities that have already suffered the largest cut in their funding. For example, the five West Yorkshire authorities, serving more than 2 million people, have had their funding reduced by £1 billion every year, with further cuts to come. This is neither sustainable nor desirable. Local authorities are the place makers, the emergency responders, the life enhancers, the glue that unites healthy, safe, vibrant communities. Investment in local services is an investment in individuals, communities and the nation, which is why I wholeheartedly support the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Scriven.