Another statement from the Chancellor, another failure to recognise the looming crisis in local government spending. It’s less than a week since the National Audit Office issued its report on the financial state of local councils, which even the LGA acknowledged was a ‘stark’ warning. But although the LGA says the government must ‘urgently address’ the funding gap, complaining that councils face a cliff-edge, the Chancellor obviously believes that most councils will simply put the brakes on and avert a catastrophe, and if a few overshoot the cliff-edge he can blame it on their incompetence.
The NAO report shows that councils are in a hard game of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Councillors know that, come what may, they have to try to keep social care functioning, the bins being emptied and the streets lit at night. Some of these services have even seen a small increase in funding (children’s care has been increased by 3.2% in real terms). The consequences for other areas of council work are indeed stark, and housing is one of them.
The report shows that spending in two areas – planning and development and housing services – fell respectively by almost 53% and 46% in real terms over the period 2010/11-2016/17. These two broad service areas have been those hit hardest by reductions in funding under the coalition and Tory governments.
But these figures hide even bigger falls in some aspects of those services. For example, spending on housing-related support has fallen by 69%. Many of these services met a range of needs, including those of homeless clients. Of course they include several services that help people in groups that the government claims to prioritise, such as those with mental health problems or who are victims of domestic violence. They provide the help that numbers of people need to sustain their tenancies and avoid homelessness. Spending on private sector renewal is another victim – it has been cut by 63%. Development control – which among other things helps secure a flow of housing land for new building – has suffered a 53% cut. Expenditure on temporary accommodation, however, has rocketed by 57%, because most councils that don’t have enough homes for the homeless are inevitably often forced to place them in high-cost private lettings.
Councils will soon face higher costs, because they will take on a new set of obligations when the Homelessness Reduction Act takes effect in April. The legislation is welcome, but massively underfunded: some £61 million is being allocated outside London and £11 million in the capital. No one thinks this is enough.
Council housing, in the meantime, as not been subject to the same cuts because it is paid for entirely from tenants’ rents. But of course it has been pushed to absorb more and more costs of services that should be paid from general funds, with tenants seeing service reductions as a result. Councils can hardly be blamed for looking for ever more ingenuous ways to cross-subsidise services but neither should tenants be expected to be complacent about what their rents are used for.
One leader of a local government body, Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, has spoken up: ‘Councils are running out of money fast’ he says, ‘We have already seen one county council go under and others may soon follow unless the government takes action now’. The LGA wrings its hands and urges the government ‘to provide the financial sustainability and certainty needed to protect the local services our communities rely on’. John McDonnell got it right when he said in response to the Chancellor, ‘We face – in every public service – a crisis on a scale we’ve never seen before… Our public services are at breaking point and many of our local councils are near bankruptcy’. He criticised the ‘indefensible spectacle’ of a chancellor ‘failing to lift a finger’ to help struggling local authorities. From Philip Hammond the looming catastrophe brought not a single word.