I say gently to my neighbour that I will come on to Harrow’s excellent reputation among businesses and the recognition it has received for its performance in that area. The figures I quote are figures that I sought from the council—I am sure it would be willing to provide him with them were he to approach it. There is one specific issue on which the Minister would be able to assist if he wanted to, and I intend to come to that in due course.
Harrow has always been a prudent borough. Despite its challenges, the council has not overspent for 11 years. Its leadership and supporting councillors have been determined to shield frontline services from the axe as far as they can, but the cuts are now so deep that the council is unable to balance the books without reducing those vital services to the bare bones. Local residents are understandably concerned about the impact of funding cuts on the council’s ability to keep the streets clean and to help to deal with antisocial behaviour, among other things. By continuing to make cuts of such scale, the Government are leaving councils such as Harrow in an impossible situation and leaving our most vulnerable people at risk.
To be fair, the council has already made large efficiency savings and taken great strides to increase revenue. It has led the way in digitalising many services—87% of customer transactions are carried out online, leaving extra resources to look at the most complex and difficult cases. Council tax has been increased year on year—sadly, it is now the third highest in London, but the collection rate is above 97%. The council has commercialised services and looked at innovative ways to supply residents with additional quality services that generate new income while not endangering existing businesses and the private sector. From offering services such as training, a cookery school and gardening services to MOT testing and dealing with food and trade waste, the council has been very innovative. It has also marketed itself successfully for major film locations and for commercial events in our parks. It is a leader in shared services and is working with a number of councils to make significant efficiencies for frontline and back office services together.
As I indicated, Harrow is blessed with very dedicated and hardworking staff; in 2017, its children’s services attained a “good” rating from Ofsted, putting Harrow in the top 25% of councils across the country for performance in that fundamental service—a remarkable achievement in the circumstances. However, the council cannot be expected to deliver first-rate services with a third-rate budget level of funding, and local people know that.
Cuts are already having a big impact. Harrow has closed four libraries and significantly scaled back its work in public health. Drug, alcohol and smoking cessation services have been reduced, and all discretionary grants to the charity sector have been ended. The council has also been forced to reduce taxi card provision for the disabled to the lowest level in London. There has been a significant reduction in the number of children and families that the borough’s children’s centres are able to support. Lack of funding is holding back any ability the council might have to respond appropriately to other identified local needs, such as meeting the needs of young people.
The Young Harrow Foundation, in partnership with the council, conducted a survey of school-aged children between 10 and 19, which received an astonishing 4,500 responses. The results are very worrying. Mental health and violent crime were serious concerns for Harrow’s young people; 10% said they have suicidal thoughts and 15% said they need support relating to self-harm. We all know that lives are blighted when vulnerable members of society cannot access the help they need, and when people are unable to achieve their potential, everyone loses out.
In response to some of the acute issues facing councils, the Government have offered occasional one-off payments to, at best, paper over the cracks. For important services, that means councils are unsure of whether they will have the funding for key provision, and residents do not know whether vital services will continue to exist, from one year to the next. In short, it leaves local authorities unable to make long-term spending commitments to deliver some of the preventative work that would really benefit residents.
Harrow has had success in bidding for some such external funding to tackle some of those challenges. It secured £500,000 worth of investment from the Home Office to help fund early intervention services for young people at risk of joining gangs and becoming involved in youth violence. It also secured £760,000 to help support economic growth locally and was recently granted some £32 million by City Hall to build just over 600 new council homes. While this type of funding is of course welcome, these too are one-off payments for specific activities, offering no guarantees of continued funding, and the council may find itself having to cancel successful programmes if funding is not renewed. I gently suggest that that is not a grown-up, sensible way of funding local government.