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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, made some very trenchant points, for which we should thank him.
The gracious Speech contained little to remedy the deep-seated problems affecting the delivery of public services, most of which relate to a lack of money. The Prime Minister’s stated aim is to unite the country and level it up. That is to be welcomed, but I hope the Government understand that it will need a great deal of hard work and a huge injection of cash which, in the context of borrowing constraints for current spending, seems unlikely to be forthcoming.
I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I welcome the inclusion of Bills relating to renters’ reform and ending no-fault evictions. I also welcome the building safety Bill and the fire safety Bill. However, I wonder about the proposed 30% discount for local people who are first-time buyers. It is clearly an attractive policy in principle, but it appears that it may be paid for by local councils through reducing the building of affordable and social homes for rent. That would not be a housing policy for a united country.
The fact is that many of the problems that are being faced by local communities that feel left behind will not be addressed by these Bills. The crisis of funding is stark and the cuts have gone too far. Since 2010, more than half of central government financial support to local government has been cut, effectively abolishing safety nets in the areas that need them most. Yet the Government have committed themselves to keeping taxes down with no increases promised in income tax, national insurance or VAT. Interestingly, council tax was not on that list, and I think we should conclude that the Government are intent on allowing council tax to rise above inflation over the period of this Parliament to help pay for the deficit in adult social care. Even the extra allocation just before Christmas did not meet the deficit forecast for next year.
We now learn that the reform of social care could take the whole of this Parliament, which means that we will have had almost 15 years of failure by the Conservative Party to decide upon a policy. I would ask the Minister where the fair funding review for local government is, where some of the decisions on the long-term future of business rates actually are, and what decisions are likely to be announced soon on the shared prosperity fund to replace lost European funding.
It is said that the Budget in March will be about an infrastructure revolution to help areas suffering poor connectivity and low private sector investment. I welcome that, but the Government should remember that towns that feel left behind have a preponderance of low-paid jobs and older populations as young people leave. Rebuilding local economies means that communities must be empowered. The decline caused by poor transport connections, low investment in education and low levels of skills in the face of large cuts to FE budgets has meant that access to better-paid jobs can be limited. In such areas, public spending can be high, but more often than not that reflects more spending by DWP and the NHS as they deal with the consequences of poor life chances.
We need to create a virtuous circle that is led by investment in FE, skills and schools, alongside a major commitment by the private sector to invest in areas that have been in decline, perhaps utilising local authority pension funds. We also need a change in Treasury rules so that infrastructure investment decisions do not relate just to national economic growth and thus government tax revenues, but to improvements in well-being in specific places.
Finally, the Government have promised to devolve decision-making in England, and that is welcome. Devolution in England will drive local prioritisation of investment rather than wish-listing locally and blaming Whitehall when not everything can be afforded. We need Whitehall’s role to be reversed from one of running England directly to one of empowering the constituent parts of England to make their own decisions on priorities. To that principle, we should add the right to raise specific local taxes.