To ask Her Majesty’s Government what priority they give to the provision of and funding for local neighbourhood services.
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and remind the House of my registered interest as a district councillor.
My Lords, the local government financial settlement sees a real-terms increase in resources to local government over the next two years and gives councils the ability to protect important services. However, local authority spending priorities are ultimately a matter for local decision.
My Lords, the Government are of course right that local priorities will be decided locally, but when the question is which services to cut the priorities are rather different. Across the country, fewer streets are being swept, libraries and leisure facilities are being closed, 500 children’s centres have closed, neighbourhood policing is collapsing in many areas, there are fewer food inspections and in many places local bus services are being removed, while throughout the country it appears that local authorities are totally unable to fill in potholes. Do the Government not realise that what is going on cannot continue much longer without the whole fabric of local community services being destroyed?
My Lords, I shall take just a couple of examples from the rather dismal litany of the noble Lord. On libraries, I shall take the example of Worcestershire, where a very innovative way of running libraries as community hubs is being perfected. That is true also of Greenwich; it is not just Conservative local authorities that are doing that. The noble Lord mentioned potholes. We announced a pothole fund of £296 million in 2016.
My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant interests in the register. What work has the department done to look at the effect of cuts to funding for environmental health on the ability of local authorities to ensure that homes are safe, warm and dry and therefore fit for human habitation?
My Lords, environmental health is clearly an area of concern. It is a matter for local priorities. We keep this very much under review and we are very well satisfied. If the noble Lord wants to write about particular examples, I am happy to look at them. As far as I can see, having looked at this, it is an area that is being very well delivered by most local authorities.
My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the delivery of neighbourhood services in rural areas is key? Would it not be easier for local authorities to fund neighbourhood services if they had more certainty about future support from the Government? What steps do the Government propose to take in this regard?
My Lords, my noble friend makes two very good points. On the first, relating to rural services, she will be aware that we have increased the rural services delivery grant by £31 million in the current year, following two earlier years of extending that grant. I agree with my noble friend on the point about certainty. Through the business rate retention scheme, which is going to go up to 75% and is being piloted in 89 different local authority areas, we are seeking to provide just that, and that is continuing.
My Lords, in relation to the wider concern about neighbourhood services, we are yet to see the Green Paper on social care outlining plans for improved care for older people in an ageing population. From my own diocese, I am aware of the financial pressures on councils and the pressures that they are facing from the cost of social services for the elderly as they increase. Hampshire County Council expects an additional 1,000 over-85 year-olds every year. What assessment have the Government made of the demands on local social care services in the light of our current ageing population?
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right to highlight the importance of this area. As he has indicated, there is going to be a review of it, and that will be announced in due course. Hampshire County Council, along with many other county councils, recognises the pressure that exists here. We have provided 3% for the adult care precept. Additionally, I thank the right reverend Prelate and many other right reverend Prelates for the work that their dioceses do in support of what the Government and local authorities are also doing.
My Lords, how many local authorities have told the Government that they have sufficient funds to meet their many responsibilities?
My Lords, the noble Lord has been around long enough to know that that is not something that local authorities ever do. I would be amazed if he were able to cite examples of any Government having a queue of local authorities, or even one local authority, saying that they had enough money. However, the fact remains that local authorities are doing an excellent job of delivering services on the ground, admittedly in challenging circumstances, and that remains the norm.
My Lords, the Government are undertaking a fair funding review of local government expenditure. What value do they intend to place on neighbourhood services such as parks and public open spaces?
The noble Baroness is absolutely right: a fair funding review is due to report—in 2020-21, I think—on relative needs. Obviously, I do not want to pre-empt that, but suffice it to say that parks are a very important service delivered by local authorities. I had the great privilege of visiting Brockwell Park in Brixton recently and seeing an excellent park provided by the local authority there—Lambeth, I think—and work being done on the green flag scheme. That is vital. It is a matter for local priorities. There, it was obviously something that the local authority was concentrating on but, as I said, I cannot pre-empt the review that we are holding.