“Effects of reductions in local authority budgets” a missed opportunity

I’m speaking this evening as someone who – both as an MP and also as Mayor of the Sheffield City Region – works closely with Local Authorities.

Not only do I get to lead the Combined Authority of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield,

with Derbyshire Dales, North East Derbyshire, Chesterfield, Bolsover and Bassetlaw and non-constituent members.

But, through the Yorkshire Leader’s Board, I get to work closely with all of Yorkshire’s other Local authority leaders.

And I can tell the House that the work that these local authorities do is of the highest standards of public service.

But for too long the reputations of:

  • local authorities have been smeared with accusations of profligacy;
  • their councillors with a lack of concern for value for money;
  • and their workers with accusations of idleness.

In my experience, these allegations are unfounded, and have served only

  • to undermine the important role local authorities play in our communities,
  • and to serve as a justification for 8 years of budgetary cuts.

Councils and councillors are improving people’s lives, every day.

The work they do is community led public service at its best.

And though austerity has forced them to make difficult choices, Councillors have, and continue to:

  • stretch every pound available
  • listen to the communities which they both serve and live in,
  • work tirelessly to shield the most vulnerable from the worst of the austerity agenda.

Labour Councils in particular have refused to buy into the narrative that they are simply ‘managing decline’,

They do much more than that.

Even at the height of austerity, innovations by Labour Councils have seen them;

deliver new community facilities, form ground-breaking energy networks and use technology to improve social care services.

Examples of this innovation include in my own council Barnsley,

who established a Warm Homes campaign, which seeks to tackle fuel poverty,

and Doncaster Council, who set up an Education and Skills Commission review to shape a future system that works for both the people of Doncaster and local businesses.

Local authorities are making a difference and giving people in our communities support in difficult and testing times.

Their accomplishments are a testament to the hard work of councillors and staff, this should be recognised.

Not just by the local communities that they serve, but by a national government prepared to trust and empower public servants at the most local level of government.

The reality is that councils are facing a funding crisis.

Since 2010, in my area:

Doncaster and Barnsley Councils have both had to make a £100 million of cuts.

 Rotherham, £177 million

 and Sheffield City Council, £390 million.

Austerity has caused huge damage to communities up and down the UK.

It is has undermined the way we protect:

  • children at risk,
  • disabled adults,
  • and vulnerable older people,

and reduced the quantity and quality of community services such as:

  • street cleaning,
  • libraries,
  • and rubbish collection.

Reduced funding also means reduced capacity to invest in prevention and as such these cuts are no more than a false economy.

  • If councils are unable to fund sufficient support for older people, more of them will end up being admitted to hospital.
  • Less money for children’s services means our young people will only ‘get by’ rather than thrive.
  • Failing to invest in public transport stifles economic growth, isolates communities, reduces social mobility and damages our environment.

These are just a few examples of an austerity agenda that lacks any form of long-term strategy.

The impacts of which can be seen around the country, not least in Conservative-run Councils like East Sussex, Somerset and Surrey,

Where they have cut services to the bone in an effort to avoid following Northamptonshire into bankruptcy.

Mx Speaker, I’m proud of the way in which Labour run councils have dealt with their challenges,

Even in the face of unfairly distributed funding that sees the poorest local authorities – which tend to be Labour-run –

having had their spending cut by £228 per person since 2010,

compared to the richest councils which have had their spending cut by only £44 per person.

And these cuts are not just affecting local residents.

Years of pay freezes and below-inflation increases mean that some of our council workers are:

  • Resorting to foodbanks,
  • over reliant on credit,
  • and asking for financial help from family and friends

Unpaid overtime is now essential to keep services going,

and nearly half of council staff now are thinking about leaving for something less stressful.

Recent research by my union, UNISON, found that:

  • 83% do not think that the quality of services delivered for the public has improved.

and

  • 7 in 10 council employees across South Yorkshire think that local residents are not receiving the help and support they need.

 These are figures that should concern us all.

 Local councils face a funding gap of £7.8bn by 2025 and are being cut by £1.3bn next year.

Yesterday’s budget offer of £650 million for the coming year is nowhere near enough to close the funding gap for social care,

which faces a £2 billion funding gap just to maintain services at their current level.

The funding is a drop in the ocean, following eight years, and some 7 billion pounds worth of cuts to council budgets.

There is no doubt that business rates are a regressive tax so short term relief will be a lifeline for many businesses.

But making unilateral policy decisions to reduce business rates,

at the same time as making councils more dependent on their revenue,

renders the funding base for local services even more precarious.

Unlike the NHS, which has been offered both multi-year funding and a commitment to a 10 year plan,

local services once again have to make do with short term fixes.

The creation of yet more short-term funding pots is no way to get value for money from public spending.

Central and local government need to work together on the fundamental reform of the local taxes so that they are finally fit for purpose.

If the era of austerity is truly coming to an end, it needs to feel that way to local residents.

Yesterday’s Budget contains little to halt the erosion of the council services that local people value and rely on.

The most vulnerable in our communities will continue to bear the brunt.

 Mx Speaker

We live in a time of increasing disenfranchisement and distrust.

Across the UK only 27% think our system of government is working well and only a similarly small number feel that ordinary people “have a big say in decision making”.

When I look at my home county of Yorkshire, it’s easy to understand why:

Government spending is nearly £300 per person lower than the national average;

transport infrastructure investment is one tenth of that in the capital;

income is only 80% of the national average;

and, like everywhere else in the UK outside of London and the south-east, real earning power has not risen in a decade.

These concerns cannot be addressed by the piecemeal redistribution of income that we saw yesterday.

They can only be addressed by redistributing power. 

The government should be working to empower communities by devolving decision-making closer to the places it will affect.

Together with investment, this will lead to both better public services and the reengagement of people around a common sense of community purpose.

I believe devolution offers us the opportunity to do this. 

Whether it’s a mayoral or an assembly model, when we get devolution right it offers a fairer and more democratic means of governing and delivering.

One where working people have a greater say in the choices that affect their lives, and a greater stake in the services they rely upon.

Because we can only achieve radical transformative change to communities if the communities control their own destinies.

And this mean this government listening to those communities, and the leaders they have elected to represent them.

Can the Minister therefore say when the Local Authorities of Yorkshire will get a response to the recent Yorkshire Devolution proposal submitted by council leaders and myself.

It is not just a matter of basic courtesy that this happens soon,

But it is in everyone’s interests to resolve this matter as soon as possible.

Also, I know from Ministerial responses to PQ’s I’ve recently tabled that the Minister’s department intends to publish a “Devolution Framework”,

 Can the Minister say when this will be, and what consultation has taken place to underpin it.

He’s obviously also welcome to say what’s in it – though I suspect he will not!

Mx Speaker, to conclude, if we are to enable the right level of devolution and abandon an economic and political model that’s only hope is for wealth to trickle down and prosperity to ripple out.

We must replace it with a fully empowered three-tier system of government – local, regional, national.

Giving each tier the powers and resources they need to make a difference in the communities for which they are responsible.

Only if we do this correctly will we be putting the right people at the heart of decision making;

end the status quo with which so many people have become disenfranchised;

and allow communities to overcome the challenges they face and to thrive.

Greater funding and stronger powers for our local authorities should be the first stage of that journey.

But yesterday’s budget represented another opportunity missed.