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Local Government Finance

Volume 768: debated on Monday 8 February 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat the Statement made earlier this afternoon in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

“Mr Speaker, I am pleased to report to the House my response to the consultation on the provisional local government financial settlement for the next financial year. I have considered all 278 responses to the consultation. My Ministers and I have met with local government leaders of all types of authority from all parts of the country. I have listened carefully to each of them. I am grateful to everyone who has taken the trouble to make suggestions. The provisional settlement contains a number of important innovations.

First, although the statutory settlement is for 2016-17, I set out indicative figures to allow councils to apply for a four-year budget, extending to the end of the Parliament. Such a change permits councils to plan with greater certainty. The offer was widely appreciated in the consultation. This is not surprising, since it has been a key local government request for years. I want to give councils the time to consider this offer and formulate ways to translate the greater certainty into efficiency savings. I will therefore give councils until Friday 14 October to respond to the offer, although many have done so positively already.

Secondly, in the provisional settlement I responded to the clear call from all tiers of local government to recognise the important priority and growing costs of caring for our elderly population. In advance of the spending review, the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services had written to me requesting that an additional £2.9 billion a year be made available by 2019-20. Through a dedicated social care precept of 2% a year, equivalent to £23 per year on an average band D home, and a better care fund of £1.5 billion a year by 2019-20 to address pressures on care, the provisional settlement will be made up to £3.5 billion, available by 2019-20.

Thirdly, recognising that council services in rural areas face extra costs, I proposed in the provisional settlement that the rural services delivery grant should be increased from £15.5 million this year to £20 million in 2016-17—the year of this settlement—and to £65 million in 2019-20. Councils and colleagues who represent rural areas welcomed this, but some asked that the gap between rural and urban councils in central government grants should not widen, especially in the year ahead for which this statutory settlement is concerned.

Fourthly, this year’s provisional settlement marked the turning point from our over-centralised past. At the start of the 2010 Parliament, almost 80% of council expenditure was financed by central government grants. By next year, the revenue support grant will account for only 16% of spending power, and by 2019-20 only 5%. Ultimately, the revenue support grant will disappear altogether as we move to 100% business rates retention. Local financing through council tax and business rates rather than a central government grant has been a big objective of councils for decades. However, some authorities argued for transitional help in the first two years, when the central government grant declines most sharply. They argued that other local resources would not have time to build up fully. So, much in the provisional settlement was welcomed, but specific points were made about the sharpness of changes in the government grant in the early years of this Parliament and concerns about the costs of service delivery in rural areas.

Another very important point was made. Many councils felt that too much time has passed since the last substantial revision of the formula which assesses a council’s needs and the costs it can be expected to incur in delivering services. These responses to the consultation seem to me reasonable and ought to be accommodated if at all possible.

Everyone will appreciate that the need to reduce the budget deficit means that meeting these recommendations is extraordinarily difficult. I am pleased to be able to meet all of the most significant of them. I can confirm that every council will have, for the financial year ahead, at least the resources allocated by the provisional settlement. I have agreed to the responses to the consultation which recommended additional funding to ease the pace of reductions during the most difficult first two years of the settlement for councils with the sharpest reductions in revenue support grant. I will make additional resources available in the form of a transitional grant, as proposed in responses to the consultation by colleagues in local government. The grant will be worth £150 million a year, paid over the first two years.

On the needs formula itself, it is nearly 10 years since the current formula was last looked at thoroughly. There is therefore good reason to believe that the demographic pressures affecting particular areas—such as the growth in the elderly population—have affected different areas in different ways, as has the cost of providing services. So I can announce that we will conduct a review of what the needs assessment formula should be in a world in which all local government spending is funded by local resources, not central grant, and use it to determine the transition to 100% business rates retention.

Pending that review, I recognise the particular costs of providing services in sparse rural areas, so I propose to increase more than fivefold the rural services delivery grant from £15.5 million this year to £80.5 million in 2016-17. With an extra £32.7 million available to rural councils through the transitional grant I have described, this is £93.2 million of increased funding compared to the provisional settlement available to rural areas. Significantly, this proposal ensures no deterioration in government funding of rural areas compared to urban areas for the year of this statutory settlement. I have also, at the request of rural councils, helped the most economical authorities by allowing them to charge a de minimis £5 more a year in council tax without triggering a referendum. I will also consult on allowing well-performing planning departments to increase their fees in line with inflation at the most, providing that the revenue reduces the cross-subsidy that the planning function currently gets from council tax payers.

A final point from the consultation is that although the figures for future years are indicative, a small number of councils were concerned that as their revenue support grant declined, they would have to make a contribution to other councils in 2017-18 or 2018-19. I can confirm that no council will have to make such a payment.

These are important times for local government. The devolution of power and resources from Whitehall is gathering momentum, yet I am aware that there is serious work for councils to do to provide excellent services to residents at the lowest cost possible over the years ahead. I acknowledge the important role of councils which deliver the services on which all our constituents depend. I am grateful for all their contributions. My response to the consultation has responded positively to sensible recommendations, in as fair a manner as possible, while holding firm to our commitment to free our constituents from the dangers inherent in the deficit. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I extend the customary thanks to the Minister for repeating the Statement, although what is being offered to local government could best be described as the equivalent of a cup of hemlock, slightly diluted. It is seven weeks since the provisional local government finance settlement was announced. Today, barely a month before councils are required to determine their budgets and set the council tax rate for next year, we have the final instalment.

The reaction to December’s announcement was interesting. The Conservative leader of Bracknell, Paul Bettison, an old sparring partner of mine in the Local Government Association, protested vigorously at the cuts that his and other Berkshire councils were facing. The leader of West Berkshire district council rejected the notion, consistently promoted by Ministers, that councils could easily deploy reserves to close the gap, and the leader of Lincolnshire was critical of the Conservative-led Local Government Association for what he described as its muted response to the Statement, saying that it did not put across the scale of the issue. These are councils whose problems of deprivation and need are significantly less than those of many cities and urban areas—and, indeed, of some rural areas—which have been especially hard hit over the past five years.

The LGA in its response, while welcoming the four-year period of the indicative settlement, raised a number of issues. It asked that the rating appeals system be reformed and that the new system in which councils will retain business rates should be based on a fundamental review of the needs basis and include equalisation as well as incentivisation to promote business development. The Government have announced a long-overdue review of the needs assessment formula in the light of the abandonment of the revenue support grant, but what is the timescale? What is meant by the phrase that this will be used,

“to determine the transition to 100% business rates reduction”?

What action, if any, will be taken in relation to the rating appeals system?

The LGA pointed that while the better care fund is to enhance the amount spent on social care, there is no extra funding for next year and only £105 million for 2017-18, when not only is demand rising but councils will have to meet the cost of the national minimum wage rises, which will be £330 million next year and £834 million a year by 2020. Will the Government comply with the call for the better care fund increase to be implemented in 2016-17, as opposed to two years later, and how do they envisage councils meeting the longer-term costs, not least in relation to the minimum wage point?

Council tax freeze grant will no longer be paid as it has been for the past few years—although, of course, this was top-sliced from the settlement in the first place in a piece of political legerdemain. How do the Government respond to the complaint that £74 million included in the current year for local welfare schemes is not embodied in the settlement? What is the position in relation to the independent living fund, where the £191 million passing to councils last year should be updated to £255 million, the full-year cost? Is that provided for in the settlement? It is noticeable that there will also be a cut of £600 million in education services, notwithstanding the growing pressures reported in the press of rising school rolls and teacher shortages.

Today, it is fair to say that the Government have slightly softened the blow for rural authorities, which will be welcome so far as it goes, but severe problems remain for councils and their communities. The boasted 2% social care precept which councils can levy will help wealthier areas much more than those with high numbers in the lowest council tax bands. As I pointed out last week, Newcastle, with 70% of households in bands A and B, will gain only £1.7 million to reduce the severe impact on its social care provision within the £132 million cuts that the council faces next year. That sum, an annual sum for one council, is almost as much as the entire national transitional grant payable over two years and not far from 10% of the total national amount to be raised by the 2% precept and the better care fund contribution combined.

The Secretary of State claims:

“The devolution of power and resources from Whitehall is gathering momentum”,

and that he has,

“responded positively to sensible recommendations, in as fair a manner as possible, while holding firm to our commitment to free our constituents from the dangers inherent in the deficit”.

What is gathering momentum is the devolution of responsibility without power and the danger of the constant erosion of the services which a civilised nation should be providing across a range of services from social care to education, policing to child protection, public health to libraries, museums and the arts and many others—the very essence of community life and of a healthy local democracy.

My Lords, in terms of the final settlement and councils about to set their budgets—and I totally appreciate that point because, like the noble Lord, I would wait with bated breath until I knew exactly what I was dealing with in terms of final settlement—through the final settlement today, the Secretary of State has made it quite clear that no council will be worse off and no council will lose anything from the provisional settlement. In fact, Newcastle will benefit to the tune of about £6 million because of the new approach to the settlement. We recognise the difficulties of the first two years, which is why we are providing this transitional fund.

The noble Lord talked about the national minimum wage. It is definitely a significant cost, particularly in the area of social care. That is why the 2% precept, plus access to the better care fund, is being made available.

The noble Lord asked about the review of the needs-based formula. I cannot actually remember the point he made. Does he want to repeat it?

I think that that will be in place for 2019 and it will be based on wide consultation with local authorities.

The noble Lord also asked why the council tax freeze grant was going. For many local authorities, the council tax freeze grant was a mixed blessing, because, while councils received it, it would also put their baseline down the following year. So many local authorities are pleased in many ways not to be dealing with the freeze grant but having far more control of their own destinies.

The noble Lord asked also about the Independent Living Fund. That will continue to be a separate grant made available to local authorities.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. I should declare that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I welcome the four years of the settlement period. The decision by the Secretary of State to extend the consultation to October is the right one. Will the Minister confirm that underlying that four-year settlement is an expectation by the Government that council tax will rise by up to 4% a year, each year, for the period of this settlement? Secondly, in issuing a Statement of this kind, I wonder whether greater care might be taken with words. It says that a four-year settlement is better for generating efficiency savings, but it is not just about efficiency savings. There is rising demand and there are rising costs, of which the living wage is one.

On the extra £3.5 billion that is going to be available for social care by 2019-20, £1.5 billion of that will be from the better care fund. What more can be said about how the better care fund is going to be distributed and, indeed, whether it could be distributed starting earlier? The point is that some councils are under exceedingly great pressure on the matter and need to have support earlier—and we need to ensure that the distribution reflects that need.

We welcome the extra help that is being given to rural areas. Will the Minister confirm that that is real, extra money for the whole of the settlement period and will not in the future be simply a transfer from other parts of local government, particularly the urban areas?

Finally, on the issue of business rates, as we move to 100% retention, there is an issue about those places less able to raise money from business rates because they grow more slowly than others. It is good that there is going to be a two-year transition period, but what is going to happen after that? I hope that the consultation that was announced in the other place a little while ago is going to be a genuine one that will end up with a revision of the formula for central government support. The Statement reminds us that all local government spending is going to be,

“funded by local resources, not central grant”,

and says that there will be a consultation to determine the transition to 100% business rates retention. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, talked about this. The implication is that the transition is going to be a great deal longer than two years. Will the Minister comment on that?

I thank the noble Lord for raising some important points. His first question was about the four-year settlement and whether there was an assumption of council tax rises. We are not making any assumptions about what councils might want to do; in those figures we are making an assumption of CPI plus 2%.

The noble Lord asked about the better care fund and how it might be distributed. It is intended to benefit most those with the lowest tax bases, so that it is fairly distributed and helps the places most dependent on central government grant. The better care fund is distributed to take into account additional income that could be raised through council tax.

Did the noble Lord have another question?

It was about business rates and the two-year transition and how the consultation will be done to reflect needs.

The Government are quite clear that the consultation will be done to reflect needs. The transitional fund is designed entirely to meet some of the pressures of getting through the period to 2018-19 that councils were talking to us about.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for all the work that has been done on behalf of local government. I have been in local government for 20 years and cannot remember a time when a Government have actually listened to local government, as far as the settlement goes, and changed their mind—so my thanks goes to the team for doing that.

The transitional grant was critical to councils, particularly those with social care responsibility. They needed that transitional fund to plan for the future. Together with the undertaking to review what the needs assessment formula will look like as we move from government grant to local resourcing of councils, this, too, is extremely welcome.

For me and for many others in rural authorities, we have won the argument over the costs of providing, in particular, social care services in large, sparse rural areas, and I thank the Minister for that. A lot of work has been done in both Houses to lobby the Government for this settlement and I thank them and the Local Government Association. I also assure the Minister that, as ever, local government will continue to be as efficient a part of government as it is now and will always be there to deliver those important services to the residents we represent.

What is meant by the “most economical” authorities? These are the authorities that will be allowed to make a de minimis charge of £5 on council tax without a referendum, but it is not made clear what the most economical authorities are.

I thank my noble friend for making some very constructive points, particularly about the issues that rural authorities face with things such as the delivery of social care in sparsely populated areas. The rural services delivery grant will be £60.5 million this year and £30 million next year, compared to the provisional settlement. That will be for all councils where 2% is less than £5—whatever is the greater—and will apply to all shire districts.

My Lords, in declaring an interest as a member of Cumbria County Council, perhaps I may associate myself, first, with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Beecham about the very serious threat to the quality of life and basic decency of our society that the cuts in the local government grant represent. This is a horrific situation for all those who care about the public realm. Having said that, my own instinct as a localiser is to move to self-funding, but I have always thought that we needed new and reformed methods of finance and a proper assessment of needs, along with some sort of transfer mechanism to make it possible.

Of course I welcome the increase in the rural services grant, but I point out that the numbers in the Statement that has been circulated show that the big increases are £11.9 million for Surrey, £5.7 million for Kent, £7.7 million for Hertfordshire, £9.3 million for Hampshire and £6.9 million for Essex. This looks like a Home Counties settlement, not one for the whole of England.

My own authority of Cumbria is glad to see that some consideration has been given to the problems of a genuinely stretched local area. However, in a Question in the House a couple of weeks ago, I raised the problem of how funding for the costs of flood recovery is going to be made available. Is what is in the local government settlement all there is going to be, or will some special announcement be made to reflect the hundreds of millions of pounds in costs facing councils in our area, and in the rest of the north, as a result of the floods? Is this it or is there more to come?

My Lords, I wish that the noble Lord had been in the House either last week or the week before, when we were talking about the floods and some of the infrastructure replacement requirements. The noble Lord makes the point that some of the infrastructure repairs in Cumbria are going to be far greater than we had thought, and I said to noble Lords at the time that if there were infrastructure repairs that they thought had been either overlooked or not identified yet, they should get in touch with me and I would speak to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. If the noble Lord thinks that the funding assumptions are out of kilter, I ask him to let me know. I look forward to having another conversation with him in due course about that and, perhaps, devolution.

The noble Lord also makes the point that Surrey and so on have had more. I have just been having a look at the figures for poor old Trafford, which has got minus 1.2%, while Manchester has had a £16.8 million increase. We always think we are worst off in our part of the world but Trafford, sitting beside Manchester, has actually done considerably less well. Still, this settlement recognises some of the challenges to those county areas. I hope that the noble Lord will get in touch with me over the flooding issue.

My Lords, I point noble Lords to my registered interests but more particularly, for the purpose of this, to the fact that I am chairman of the cross-party Local Government Association, in which the Conservatives are only 40% of the total voting weight. I need to make it clear that I am a Conservative but am chairman of a cross-party organisation, and our organisation broadly welcomes today’s announcement.

We all knew that the local government settlement was going to be tough, no matter which of the two main parties won the election. We knew before Christmas that it was going to be tougher than we had expected for some councils, and I am pleased that the Government have actually listened to the remarks that we made in the consultation period. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on the opposite side of the House, mentioned Lincolnshire and its complaints about the way that the LGA handled its negotiations. Does the Minister think that the way we handled it had something to do with the fact that the Government have listened and found over £400 million of new money to alleviate some of the pressures that we have highlighted?

My noble friend is absolutely right. We have had an extremely constructive process, at the end of which £400 million more has been found to address some of the transitional pressures that local authorities say they have faced, and I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lord Porter for the part that he has played in it.

My Lords, I declare an interest as leader of a London borough that in the provisional settlement faced a 48% grant loss, so of course I am delighted by the measures that have been taken, the finding of new resource and the provision of the transitional grant. I add to those who have paid tribute to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and indeed my noble friend on the Front Bench; there has been an outstanding willingness to speak and to listen, which has not always been the case in the past. I, too, welcome the chance for a longer discussion in relation to longer-term arrangements. Giving councils until 14 October to respond is a great step forward. I hugely welcome the review of the needs approach, especially, as the Secretary of State said, given that demographic pressures are changing in different parts of the country. I also welcome some chink of opening on planning fees, although I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that in the consultation it will be possible to look at the full recovery of costs locally as that dialogue goes forward. With many thanks to her and my right honourable friend, I welcome this adjustment.

My Lords, the minute that I got the list of figures, I looked at those for Richmond because I know of the problems and some of the challenges that it faces. That £2.9 million adjustment must have been welcome relief indeed. On the planning fees, obviously the consultation is just beginning but my noble friend has mentioned this to me before and I am looking forward to having a discussion with him during the consultation process.

My Lords, I apologise to the House; I omitted to mention my local government interests, which are recorded in the register.