A New Dawn For Local Government?
Local services have been slashed but it's now time to rebuild them, writes James Lazou of Unite the Union
The election is now in full swing with the front pages and social media full of heated debates about public spending and the impact of public services cuts.
From youth services and knife crime to flood defences and social care the impacts of 10 years of austerity are now being laid bare for all to see.
At the centre of these debates are the future of our Local Authorities - the Cinderella services of the public sector.
A decade of Tory cuts have meant that local councils are on their knees. There can be no doubt that if we want to deliver real change in this country, they urgently need more funding!
According to the Local Government Association (LGA), local councils has faced the brunt of the cuts to public spending, with councils expected to have lost 60p out of every £1 the Government had formerly provided for services between 2010 and 2020. Earlier this year they reported that “local government in England faces an overall funding gap of £8 billion by 2025.”
Almost two thirds of councils surveyed in their report predicted that they would run out of funding to provide even their statutory, legal duties by 2024/2025.
Similarly just this week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) released figures showing that councils will need billions of extra funding in the next parliament to meet rising costs, even before the impact of any election campaign pledges are taken into account.
The TUC reported in September that Local authorities will face a funding gap of £25.4 billion by 2024/25, as over the next five years increases in council tax funding would be wiped out by demographic and price pressures pushing up the costs of meeting need.
These figures come as no surprise to local authority staff. Unite members report that the impact of the cuts have been devastating on service users and staff alike. Since 2010 the local government workforce has been cut by hundreds of thousands while local government workers continue to be the lowest paid across the public sector.
Social care, social work, libraries, road maintenance, children’s services, nurseries, refuse and recycling, parks, youth and play services, community centres, housing and homelessness – all have faced some form of cut backs, contraction or reorganisation since 2010.
Unite members in community and voluntary sector organisations (children’s centres, social care providers, legal and advice centres, and women’s refuges) have also suffered as councils seek to pass on cuts to grant funded, outsourced and commissioned services.
Earlier this year a damning report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalists and Huffpost UK found that the local government funding crisis has become so dire that councils have sold thousands of public spaces, such as libraries, community centres and playgrounds in order to plug budget gaps. In some cases, local authorities had used the money raised simply to pay for hundreds of redundancies, including in vital frontline services.
Such a fire sale approach does nothing to rebuild the long-term sustainability of councils and undermines their core capital base and their long-term capacity. In worst case scenarios, such as in Tory run arch-outsourcer Northamptonshire, the impacts can be catastrophic for local communities.
Local authority cuts have not fallen on those “with the broadest shoulders” either. Rather, they have been largely targeted at the poorest areas of the country. Nine of the ten most deprived councils in the country have seen cuts of almost three times the national average.
Not content, the Government is continuing to make this inequality worse - pushing funding reforms that will disproportionately benefit wealthier councils and Tory shires. TUC evidence shows that the North West will face the biggest funding gap - equivalent to £535 per person by 2024/25.
Responsibility has to lie with this government over their failure to provide adequate funding for councils and the communities that they provide for.
Ending austerity must be more than hot air. All political parties have now publicly agreed that public services need greater investment. Among the general public, two in three want the government to increase spending on public services (Ipsos MORI poll, October 2018).
But it is not simply about restoring the services that have been vandalised by 10 years of unnecessary cuts. We need to think bigger and bolder.
The next government must make sure that local authorities are at the centre of our democracy again, not the margins. They are the institutions closest to our communities. They are best placed to understand the issues and needs that their communities face.
By rebuilding our local authorities we can give power back to local people so they can shape their own lives rather than have them shaped for them from above.