Harrow Council Funding — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 18th December 2018.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party 4:00 pm, 18th December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future funding of Harrow council.

I have lived in Harrow all my life and I feel immensely proud of my community. Although I have disagreed a number of times with decisions Harrow Council has taken, I have always been grateful for the hugely important job that it and its staff do for my constituents and the wider borough. Harrow Council should be better funded, and I look to the Minister and his Department to begin to make a significant difference in that regard.

The council faces a number of distinctive challenges in the delivery of public services, which the lack of central Government funding is exacerbating. Harrow is the second most religiously diverse and the fourth most ethnically diverse borough nationally, with 61% from a black and minority ethnic background. Some 157 different languages are spoken in Harrow schools, and 28.5% of residents do not have English as their first language. That is significantly higher than the London average of 20% and the national average of 8%.

The number of Harrow residents aged over 85 is predicted to increase by more than 60% by 2029, and 15% are already aged over 65, compared with the London-wide average of 12.5%. We have the fourth largest EU population in London—it is estimated that around 50,000 EU nationals are resident in the borough. Low wages and in-work poverty are particular problems in Harrow. Wages paid in Harrow workplaces average £575 per week for full-time workers compared with the London-wide average of some £692.

Those challenges mean there is huge pressure on Harrow Council to deliver effective public services. Earlier this month, the council published its draft budget for next year, which spells out both the important work the council is doing and the dire situation it has been put in by Government cuts. After seven years of constant cutbacks, Harrow Council has had to find a further £17 million for the upcoming financial year. Harrow will have seen its main source of central Government funding—revenue support grant—fall by some 97% by 2019-20. It is estimated that over the four-year period from 2015-16 to 2018-19 the council needed to fund an £83 million budget gap to achieve balanced budgets. If we extend that period, it is estimated that by 2020-21 the council will have had to find £125 million to balance its budgets.

In addition to the cuts in revenue support grant, further money has been required to fund growth as a result of demand pressures, including rising homelessness, increased special needs placements and rising social care costs. Moneys have also been needed to fund the impact of inflation, capital financing costs and other reductions in specific grants, such as those to support schools. Under the new methodology for calculating revenue support grant, Harrow was the sixth hardest hit of the London boroughs in 2015-16 and 2016-17, losing some £10 million annually.

Harrow Council is one of the lowest funded councils in London. In 2015-16, its revenue spending power per head was £159, 17% lower than the London average, ranking it 26th out of the 32 London boroughs. A similar comparison with the England average shows Harrow’s revenue spending power per head was £127, 14% below the average, ranking it 105th out of 120 local authorities. Quite how the Prime Minister can claim that austerity is over is beyond me. In Harrow, as nationally, it feels unrelenting—frankly, it is getting worse.

In July, Harrow began the full transition to universal credit. More than 17,000 residents are expected to be on it by the time the transition is completed. Our housing market is under intense pressure—for many, rents are very difficult to afford—and in some parts of the borough 40% of children live in poverty. As in other parts of the country, demand for adult social care outstrips savings, as councils are asked to provide ever more with ever-diminishing resources.

Other public services in the borough with a significant interface with the council are also under severe pressure. Harrow is having to cope with a significant increase in violent crime at a time when police numbers are set to decrease further and funding for youth services has been cut by more than 75% in cash terms since 2010. The clinical commissioning group faces a deficit of approximately £50 million and has already cut popular healthcare services such as the Alexandra Avenue walk-in service in my constituency. With the highest proportion of over-85s in London, the absence of a local NHS service that might absorb with less fight some of the financial pressures arising from having proportionately more vulnerable older adults exacerbates the pressure on the council.

Schools, too, face ever-increasing financial pressures, making it harder for them to accommodate as many requests to help children with special needs as they might want to. As I mentioned, Harrow is having to cope with a significant increase in violent crime. We have already lost just short of 200 police officers, and the fear is that we will have to lose even more.