Local Government Funding — [Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:49 pm on 27th March 2019.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North 2:49 pm, 27th March 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Thelma Walker on securing this debate. In a former life, I was a local councillor and cabinet member so, believe me, I know at first hand about local authorities’ opportunities and challenges, which she outlined.

Stockton Council has been ambitious and forward-thinking, and has delivered projects that some said were not possible. It partnered with Hilton and built a hotel in the town, which will complement the reopening of the 2,500-seat Globe theatre, just a short walk away, next year. Our high street won the rising star at the Great British High Street awards in 2016, which is a testament to the effort put in by councillors and staff to make our corner of the world a better place to live. The area has been a beacon for Ministers, a Select Committee and countless others, who came to see those successes for themselves.

My council has been required to deliver savings of about £45 million by the end of this financial year. Like other authorities, it faces an unprecedented growth in demand, particularly in children’s social care services. The total spend for all children’s social care services rose from £23 million in 2010-11 to £38 million—nearly double—in 2018-19, despite the reductions in grant funding. I have been told that that is the greatest cost pressure facing local authorities around the country.

Another key problem that has been highlighted to me is the inability of some councils to think ahead due to the uncertainty of local government funding. The spending review is supposed to sort that out, and we have a fair funding review, but sadly I do not feel terribly optimistic about it. Local authorities will retain a greater proportion of business rates, but there is a severe lack of clarity or agreement about how that will work. Large tower blocks in Westminster or Chelsea will raise millions of pounds for their respective councils, but local authorities like Stockton can expect very little in comparison.

Austerity affects not just the funding that local councils get—the lack of jobs and prospects that go hand in hand with it put additional pressure on families. There is a desperate need for more public health funding to address the inequalities in our society. It is estimated that there are still 19,000 smokers in my Stockton North constituency. Smoking costs my area £37.4 million every year. Some 31% of households with a smoker are below the poverty line. If those people were to give up smoking, 1,991 households would be lifted out of poverty, including 1,342 children. However, public health budgets are being diminished, rather than increased so that we can develop programmes to help people quit, and address obesity, drug misuse and dangerous choices. That is Government failure. It is the result of a reckless Government slashing the vital support services that people depend on and systematically reducing job opportunities not just through austerity but through business and industry uncertainty caused by the threat of a no-deal Brexit.

Ministers love to trumpet the rise in employment and fall in unemployment across the country, but that is not happening in areas like mine. Unemployment has risen month on month in my area for some considerable time, and local authorities have limited, if any, resources to sort it out. There has been a devolution deal of some Government budgets to the Tees Mayor and the combined authority, but despite the plethora of news releases and ministerial statements about Tees Valley, few new jobs are being created in reality. The Minister must take full responsibility and tell us what the Government will do—he is too busy looking at his phone. The Government are too busy to tell us what people are doing for constituencies such as mine.

I agree with organisations including Action for Children, Barnardo’s, the National Children’s Bureau and the Children’s Society that the spending review must provide additional funding for children and young people’s services, and address the estimated £3 billion funding gap that local authorities face by 2025. I agree that there must be a clear link between the likely need and the funding available in each local area. There cannot be a postcode lottery benefiting councils that are aligned with the Government of the day. The children and service users who are in desperate need of social care should and must come first. Importantly, early intervention is key to ensuring that the demand on services does not get out of hand. We must prevent family breakdown, not just deal with it when it happens, as that costs more money and can severely damage people’s lives and future relationships.

This is about political choices and priorities. We simply cannot afford not to spend money. We cannot scrimp and save on children’s social care and family support services until there is nothing left but the skeleton.