The war on local government

What’s more depressing, the government’s current war on local government or the lack of a sufficiently outraged response to it? Or rather, why is the outrage being directed just where the government wants – at local authorities – rather than at Theresa May, Phillip Hammond and their refusal to do anything about the precipitous crisis created by their predecessors?

Authorities like Walsall are being pilloried for threatening to close art galleries and libraries: writer Philip Hensher tweeted ‘…if you want to live among intelligent people … move out of Walsall.’ But as Graham Chapman, Labour deputy leader at Nottingham has pointed out, the real philistine is the government, which has cut Walsall’s spending power per head by £543 since 2011. Urban councils in the north and Midlands have been worst hit by the cuts, then when the government has offered compensation they’ve missed out on that too. Cuts in council funding have also tended to coincide with the areas worst affected by welfare funding cuts, as Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill have consistently shown. There can hardly have been a clearer enactment of the biblical prediction that ‘whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away’.

Housing is showing several instances of the critical reduction or disappearance of services, with councils being lined up as the culprits. In the run up to Christmas, the annual concern about rough sleeping numbers is being turned on councils, with Birmingham blamed by the local press for the £10 million cut it’s making to homelessness services. While housing minister Gavin Barwell has admirably accepted that homelessness is a ‘moral stain’, he sticks to the coalition government’s propaganda that it is ‘protecting’ or ‘increasing’ funding to tackle it, when it is doing nothing of the sort. Yes, there are some protected pockets of funding, but these are insignificant when most services to tackle homelessness are financed by councils’ general funds and support for these will, according to the IFS, have been cut by 79% by 2019/20 compared with 2010/11. Birmingham, like everywhere else, is facing horrendous choices in making its budget for 2017/18, as its chief executive has explained this month. It is not surprising that, while there has been a cautious welcome for the new homelessness prevention duty likely to be imposed on councils, there is also widespread concern about expectations being raised that can only be dashed. As Steve has already pointed out in Red Brick, the biggest step to prevent homelessness would be for the government to recognise the devastating impact of its own policies, notably those resulting from welfare ‘reform’.

Red Brick has complained before that government housing policy often has more illusion than substance, but perhaps Sajid Javid isn’t one of our readers as he’s now at it again. This time it’s in relation to the crisis in social care, where in an apparent response to Jeremy Corbyn’s cornering of Theresa May on the issue, Javid has announced more funding. Except of course that he hasn’t: the ‘extra’ is to be found by cutting the New Homes Bonus, which is not just money that councils would have got anyway, but to crown it all was taken away from them in the first place! Councils will also be allowed to raise more in council tax, which has become a very regressive source of tax income and is due to become even more so as government funding for rebates is further reduced. And again, it’s councils in the poorer parts of the country that will be worst hit and where better social care is even more urgently needed. Javid is having to make the best fist he can of the Chancellor’s failure to even mention social care in last month’s Autumn Statement, because there is, in truth, simply no more money being made available. But he can count on May’s backing to blame the problem on ‘underperforming’ councils.

There is a similar story about councils’ local planning duties in relation to housing development, where the government continues to threaten action against ‘underperforming’ councils through its Neighbourhood Planning Bill. But even builders have been forced to agree that the main problems councils have in meeting their housing targets are lack of resources and insufficient planning staff, said to affect nine out of every ten local authorities.

Council housing was, of course, supposed to be protected from these cuts because (to its credit) the coalition government implemented Labour’s deal to make the service self-financing and allow councils to decide their own rents and keep the proceeds. Councils collectively took on £13 billion of extra debt to pay for this, and began to keep their side of the bargain by upping their investment programmes. But as Red Brick has reported several times, most recently in July, the previous Chancellor reneged on his promises and instead began to use council housing as a sort of milch cow for the Exchequer. Admittedly, Javid and Barwell have now stepped back from introducing ‘pay-to-stay’ rents and have delayed the horrendous policy of forcing councils to sell higher-value stock, but the cuts in council rents are still in place and have completely undermined investment plans by taking £2.6 billion out of councils’ housing revenue accounts.

The background to the war on local government is described in historical detail by Tom Crewe in the latest edition of the London Review of Books. It is a salutary reminder of all that we have had and what we are now losing. As Crewe points out, austerity is about far more than closing art galleries and libraries (lamentable though those cuts are). It is about services which are among the basic underpinnings of civilised life: as he puts it, government ‘…has wrecked the ability of elected local authorities to provide and administer many of the features and functions of the state as we understand them… . Councils today are caught in a web of obligations, helpless to fulfil them without outside help, and at the mercy of a government that might choose not to provide it.’

While devolution to places like Greater Manchester provides some respite, it can’t make up for the cumulative effect of what will be a decade of relentless cuts and it offers yet another chance for central government to pass the buck. Sajid Javid must be delighted about the cognoscenti having a go at Walsall council, because as Tom Crewe says ‘we fret and fume about this council here, that service there, while the whole system is sliding off a cliff’.

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