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Councils: Funding

Volume 798: debated on Thursday 4 July 2019

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Local Government Association’s initial findings of its survey of council finances, published on 2 July, what steps they are taking to ensure that councils have sufficient funding to fulfil their legal duties.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

My Lords, the Government recognise the vital work that councils do to support their communities. That is why the 2019-20 settlement confirmed that councils’ core spending power will increase by 2.8% in cash terms, including an additional £650 million for social care. This is a real-terms increase in resources to support critical services. The department is preparing actively for the spending review, which is the right place to take long-term funding decisions.

My Lords, the research just published by the Conservative-led Local Government Association—referred to in my Question—shows that one-third of local authorities fear they are going to run out of funds by 2022-23, rising to two-thirds of councils by 2024-25. In the light of this disturbing and sombre news, does the Minister have any words of encouragement, hope—something—for hard-pressed local councils and their civic leaderships as they end their conference today in Bournemouth?

Local councillors and local government officials have done remarkably well to maintain, and in some cases improve, the quality of the services they provide despite, since 2010, a reduction in grant until recently, which was necessary to balance the national accounts. I recognise that they have done that without excessive rate increases. Looking forward, I have seen the report to which the noble Lord refers and welcome the Local Government Association’s attempt to quantify the pressure on resources. That information will be used by Ministers to feed into the spending review to make the case for a proper settlement for local government.

My Lords, I also remind the House of my vice-presidency of the Local Government Association. Local government will be pleased that the Minister thinks that the sector is doing “remarkably well”. Indeed it is, but does he accept that local government is facing ever-rising costs in service provision at the same time as increasing pressure on income, not least from business rates in the retail sector? Do the Government accept that this situation is turning into a crisis and would benefit from urgent cross-party discussions across national and local government, looking forward to the spending review but also examining fair funding, assumptions about council tax levels and the future of business rates?

I say to the noble Lord that I was a vice-president of the Local Government Association—until I was expelled for introducing rate-capping in the 1980s. On the serious issue he raises, extra funding announced in last year’s Budget means that the Government will have given councils access to £10 billion of dedicated funding that can be used for adult social care, which is the real pressure point, in the three-year period to 2019-20. That is a combination of the adult social care precept and the better care fund. As for his invitation to cross-party discussions, those are always welcome: it is always helpful to have consensus on how local government is funded. Announcements on fair funding and the business rates retention scheme will be made alongside the decisions of the spending review.

What can be done to ensure adequate funding for trading standards officers, who do such an important job on product safety? Fake airbags, dangerous tumble dryers: this disturbing list could get longer unless priority is given to this work in the spending review. It does not require huge sums of money, but it does require better resourcing.

I pay tribute to the work done by trading standards officers, whose case is championed by my noble friend. As she will know, local government does not like funding that is ring-fenced, so the resources for trading standards are included in the block grant. As I said a few moments ago, there has been a real increase in the funding for this year’s settlement; I hope that when we get next year’s settlement, there will also be a useful increase. It is then up to local government to give priority to the services my noble friend referred to.

My Lords, has the Minister read the report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, an in-depth study of spending by local authorities on children’s services? It highlights that 2.32 million children in this country are suffering from significant risk factors and that by 2025 we will need to spend £10 billion a year to meet these children’s needs. Does he agree that we need to fund local authorities better so that they can provide the essential early support to families, so that children at risk do not need to be taken into care, foster care or residential care?

The noble Earl makes a powerful point. In the Budget last year, £410 million was added to the social care support grant for adults and children. The case he has just made, reinforced by the report he refers to, will reinforce the case to be made by Ministers at MHCLG in their discussions with the Treasury about future funding.

My Lords, given the Government’s advocacy and indeed imposition in many parts of the country of directly elected mayoral systems, and given the enormous pressure on local government finance, will the Minister tell us whether these new systems represent good value for money in comparison with more traditional methods of local government administration? If he does not have precise figures to hand, is it not worth at least examining the comparative costs of the two systems of local government?

The Government have not imposed mayors on parts of the country; they have elected to have mayors. There has been no imposition. In all the cases involving combined authorities and local mayors, local government has come to the Government and asked that these powers be given to them. I think the noble Lord will find that he is misinformed that we have imposed this structure on local government.

My Lords, has my noble friend had an opportunity to read the report today on social care from the Economic Affairs Committee? Will he note that social care and local authorities have seen a real-terms cut in resources and that 1.4 million elderly people are not receiving the care they need? Does he not recognise that shifting the burden on to local government and relying on business rates results in postcode inequality, as different local authorities have different demands and different abilities to raise resources? Should this not be funded centrally, and done urgently?

I took the precaution of getting a copy of my noble friend’s report, which was published this morning. For the last 30 or 40 years, Governments have been trying to bring together health and social care. If you are an elderly person in need, you are not interested in a bureaucratic argument as to whether yours is a health or a social care problem; you want the support that you need. The dilemma my noble friend’s report addresses is that health is provided by national government and is free at the point of use, while social care is provided by local government and is means-tested. He addresses that problem by suggesting that local government should provide social care but it should be free and be funded by central government—that is the nub of the report. It is a hard-hitting report that expresses noble Lords’ frustration at the delay to the publication of the social care Green Paper. I very much hope that his report will accelerate a solution to this long-standing problem.