Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the levels of government support for neighbourhood services provided by district councils and other local authorities.
My Lords, in moving this Motion, I remind the House of my registered interest as a member of Pendle Borough Council.
I refer noble Lords and the Minister to previous debates that we have had on this matter and in which I have taken part. Having read what I said then, I simply reiterate that it is all still true, because the concerns that I put forward at that time, along with other noble Lords, have simply not been taken up by the Government. On 19 October 2017 there was a debate on the future availability of resources for the provision of district council services; a debate on local government finance generally was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in July 2017; and on 25 September this year I made a speech in the debate on the public spending review, which I shall refer to later. However, nothing has changed. Neighbourhood services continue to be the Cinderella of public services in this country. Things such as bin collection, street cleansing and local leisure facilities have less and less money spent on them every year, and the quality and quantity of what is happening, taken as a whole, is deteriorating.
These services comprise much of the work of ordinary district councils in two-tier areas—I am a member of one—but they are also carried out by unitary authorities, metropolitan councils and London boroughs. Some services, such as the maintenance of local highways, are carried out by county councils. However, the amount of funding provided and allowed for them by central government is the same whichever council carries them out, and it is going down. Indeed, an increasing number of these services are being provided by town and parish councils. In many areas, county, unitary and district councils are deliberately seeking to transfer some services to town and parish councils, which can levy an extra council tax to pay for them as an alternative to the services being closed down or seriously deteriorating.
We are told by our new Prime Minister that austerity is over, yet, as far as local government is concerned, the only real increases in funding, with a few exceptions, are for social care. As we know, that itself is inadequate and the social care system is in serious crisis but, nevertheless, there is real extra money going to those authorities that deal with social care. For neighbourhood or street-level services, whether they are provided by districts or larger authorities, there is no extra money at all. In fact, in real terms, the money this year is being reduced yet again.
What are these services that people like me go on about? They include street cleansing—where sweepers and other people clean up litter—and litter removal generally, as well as the local highways and streets services which tackle the potholes that the Government panicked about last year. Other services include local traffic management, street lighting, pavements and housing standards. The increasing number of private landlords in many areas of poor housing mean that housing standards are a growing problem; housing stock that had been improving over several decades—50 years, perhaps—is now in many cases deteriorating again. There are services addressing environmental health, pollution control and antisocial behaviour measures, for which district councils have responsibility following legislation a few years ago. There are local public health initiatives and all the services that safeguard the local environment, with green spaces, local amenity areas and mini parks. All this concerns not only the green environment but the whole urban environment and any public spaces.
If the district councils and local authorities do not go out deliberately to look after these areas and keep them decent, they deteriorate. It is an easy thing not to do. We are talking about children’s play areas, parks, leisure facilities, sports pitches and facilities, community centres and community facilities generally—the whole question of managing the local environment. Town centres, and towns, pose a huge problem at the moment; we are not talking about the big cities here but towns that may be large, small or medium sized. The local authority is very often the body that has to try to get a grip on maintaining viable, decent, properly maintained town centres. If it does not, who else will?
At the moment, there are lots of competitions that authorities can enter to get extra money for town centres, but they are competitions. People spend a lot of time and effort entering these competitions. Some win and get amounts of money—but resources are required for local authorities generally to look after their town centres, not just those lucky enough to win competitions. At a local level, the planning system is absolutely crucial for keeping areas as good places to live.
Refuse collection is on the front line of recycling, which is so important as part of climate initiatives. On community safety, councils may work with the local police and other bodies. The local authority has no duty to get involved but, if it does not, efforts will often not succeed. All this has a particular impact on ordinary districts, because this is what they do. It also affects everybody else and neighbourhood services everywhere.
The fabric of communities all over the country—not all of them, but many—is falling apart, as is the structure of the local services which maintain that fabric. There are rich areas and poor areas, and there are areas which are more affected by this than others. As far as the climate emergency is concerned, local authorities have an absolutely crucial role to play. A large number—maybe over 200—have declared a local climate emergency, but without the resources to do things to tackle climate issues locally, across the wide range of everything they do, it will not come to anything.
On resources, according to the National Audit Office, since the 2015 spending review, districts have had a 13.9% reduction in core spending power in real terms. That feeds across to non-districts in relation to the services they carry out, which would otherwise be district services. Since 2010-11, the median reduction in core spending power for all districts is over 30% in real terms. For the worst-hit districts, including my own, it is 50% or more. If a local authority’s spending power is cut by more than half over 10 years, it has a huge effect on what it can and cannot do. The areas that are affected are very often the poorest areas, because they are the ones which do not have the ability to raise extra money in other ways.
I raised this on 25 September in the debate on the public spending review. The Minister at that time, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, promised to write to me to explain how everything was happening. I have his letter here. It says:
“The Government also announced that it will consult on a 2% core council tax referendum principle, which will allow councils to access additional funding for their local services”.
We know that, but of course 2% is less than the rate of inflation. So it is not enough even on the amount to be raised by the council tax alone, and the amount from other sources is either static or has gone down. The Minister’s letter also says that,
“local authorities should be able to make decisions to meet pressures where appropriate, informed by local knowledge, and be accountable for them”.
I am afraid that if that is what the Government are saying, it will result in a lot of belly laughs in a lot of local authorities.
I am not here to engage in any special pleading for my own local authority in Pendle, although I will mention as an example that the number of people employed by that authority has halved since 2010. Local authority services depend on employing people. There may be greater efficiencies—I am certain that there are—but when you slash your staff numbers by half and many of your remaining staff have gone down to a three- or four-day week, and you are trying to do the same things you did before, it is impossible.
The affected authorities are often old industrial towns in the north of England and elsewhere. Generally, they are places on the edge and in the areas in between. Even in the south-east, authorities are affected. We are not talking here about major cities, but about all the ordinary places that get missed out. I had better be careful about what I say with my noble friend Lord Goddard sitting in front of me, but the north of England is more than just Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.
One very good example is the new homes bonus, which was introduced to encourage local authorities to give planning permission for new housing. In practice, it top-sliced government money for all local authorities, including the poorest, and redistributed it to those that could build new houses, which were very often already in the pipeline. The truth is that it resulted in the redistribution of money from poor areas and areas where people did not want to build houses to places with high demand for houses and where new housing had already been planned and agreed. It resulted in a redistribution of funding from the north of England to the south-east, the south-west and the east taken overall, with individual exceptions, of course. Now that the new homes bonus has been cut, the top-sliced money has not been returned to the poorer areas from which it was taken in the first place.
I could talk for the whole of this debate, but I will not. The dark clouds of austerity still hang over far too many of the ordinary streets and roads, towns and communities of England. Further cuts are not sustainable. It is no wonder that people in many of these areas are fed up with the system, fed up with everything and vote for unicorns. Two years ago, in a debate in 2017, I said that things were “at breaking point”. They are not broken yet, thanks to the efforts of the staff, the councillors and everybody working in these areas, but it is pretty damned near broken. Something has to happen to put more resources into the ordinary services that people expect when they pay their council tax.
My Lords, I am pleased to take part this afternoon. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for moving this debate on government support to help local authorities fulfil their statutory duties and provide a good range of services to our communities. As the noble Lord alluded to, those services include education, child and adult social care, waste collection, public health, planning, housing, road maintenance and library services, and I too pay tribute to the excellent staff delivering them. It has certainly been a continuing challenge against a backdrop of successive Governments reducing funding for local government, as well as changed funding arrangements that place new pressures and demands, but local authorities have, to their credit, risen to the challenge and responded by opening up and creating new opportunities against possible further pressures for the sector.
In my allotted time, I will focus on libraries, which, in their own way, can be sometimes misunderstood or remembered only as a Cinderella service. That is far from the case. That is why I will concentrate my focus on the importance of libraries, which are continuing to strike out and innovate in our neighbourhood services offer.
I welcome too the local core spending power, which is estimated to increase by £2.9 billion in total in 2020-21, but of course, as I have alluded to, there are financial challenges for councils. I am therefore pleased that local government is demonstrating how it can deliver services, for now and for the future, and that authorities and many others are making an impact by working collaboratively and sharing those precious resources, as well as co-locating with other government, partner or voluntary services. Thinking outside the box is now a must for many councils, which I know are already working and delivering in new and different ways, and making the case for the importance of neighbourhood hubs.
Libraries play an integral part in community hubs. The libraries of 2019 are not the libraries we knew 10 or 20 years ago. They are diversifying, and have to diversify, their funding, generating income streams and developing new ones. They can often play a crucial role in revitalising or helping our high streets. They help remote workers and small businesses by renting out space or by co-locating in local sports facilities, as is happening in my local unitary authority. They can also offer to develop even outreach post offices within those hubs.
Of course, we always need well trained, experienced staff, but at the same time it is amazing to see that the number of library volunteers has increased by 187% over the past seven years. Importantly, that opens up opportunities to encourage those volunteers who may be lonely and suffer from social isolation, or those they know who may be lonely, to participate in some form of further education or to join in other activities.
Many libraries have spare floor space that they can turn around by offering residents the use of online services, helping them to improve their basic digital skills and thereby helping to reduce digital exclusion. Community hubs are also the place to go for accessing all local authorities’ resources and activities.
In 2019, lending books is not all that libraries do, although it is important to be able to continue that service for young and old. They also offer a wide range of health and other social activities, as well as a place to meet or to study.
In North Lincolnshire, our libraries link with arts and cultural organisations, increasing people’s access and participation, and inform people of future cultural events. A must, though, is to continue ongoing dialogue with customers regarding their possible future demands. In our neighbourhood hubs, we also offer the opportunity to display community collections; the translating of information resources into other languages; a programme of physical and social well-being activities for adults; programmes and advice for those who want to make positive sustainable changes to their health, such as weight management and stopping smoking; health checks; and, in particular, activities for young people. It is about having a building that is designed to allow multiple community groups to use it at the same time, where its many doors are all open.
This is where our CallConnect buses come into play—a service with no fixed timetable but which responds instead to passenger requests made by telephone or online. It improves transport opportunities in our rural communities, and some market towns, where there is an infrequent conventional bus service. And it works, together with the confidence that comes from the pooling of local authority budgets, rather than just thinking in silos. I welcome what the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, said earlier about support for a national bus strategy and long-term funding for transport.
Neighbourhood services are a core aspect of our communities and of how we continue to engage with and improve service delivery in our many different geographical council areas, and from council to council. The multi-year funding settlement has allowed councils to plan ahead. However, the four-year settlement is now coming to an end, which is resulting in uncertainty. Local government needs clarity for future investment, so I ask the Minister if he can update the House on possible future developments.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. Her remarks about community bus services, having new request bus services and refashioning libraries as community hubs, and co-locating other community services, were extremely well made. It is vital that we deal with underfunding, but it is also important that we get the best value from the resources, the infrastructure and the funding that is currently available, and redesigning services along the lines that she was discussing in relation to Lincolnshire, which she knows well, is a point well made.
I have a gentle criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. He said that there were problems, “even in the south-east”. Can I inform my noble friend that there are many problems in the south-east, and most of the issues that he talked about apply equally to London and the south-east as other parts of the country? It is a very bad idea for us to be setting the north against the south, as if somehow the south is a land of milk and honey and the north is all starved. These problems are fairly common across the north and the south, and many of the issues which the noble Baroness referred to about redesigning services are equally important in the south-east.
Recently I visited the wonderful new library and community centre run by Oasis, a brilliant charity run by the outstanding community leader the Reverend Steve Chalke in Waterloo, in the London Borough of Lambeth. He has turned a library that was threatened with closure into a community centre. It also has a school and a debt advice service. The police station next door, sadly, is being closed, and Oasis is hoping to bring that into the community hub, too. There is a community centre and a café there. It is a vibrant community service that has enabled the local authority, working in partnership, to keep open a service that would have been closed even without the cuts which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to. What we need to do—this is part of the role that noble Lords in this House can play—is showcase successful models of delivery, even though politically some of us would like to see fundamental changes in national policy, so that we can make the best of what we have got and utilise our still-rich panoply of local community institutions and infrastructure to provide still-better services.
I of course agree with the substance of what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, says. We need to join up the big picture here. Part of the reason why we are going through this Brexit crisis, and a massive crisis of confidence in our political institutions and our Government, is because the services on which people depend, all of those neighbourhood services, street collections, libraries, schools, housing—which I will have more to say on—have been seriously cut back in recent years, and people make a connection between the two. They think that the fact that they are getting such a raw deal in terms of their local services is part of the reason why they should lack confidence in their national Government. Alas, three and a half years ago the only question they were asked in a referendum was: “Do you want to leave the European Union?” They are now taking it out on politicians, particularly in communities more distant from London, such as Lincolnshire and parts of the north, that voted to leave.
It is very clear to me that, if we are going to deal with the massive crisis that we face as a country, we have to end austerity and fundamentally invest in our local communities—particularly poorer communities—and stop Brexit. We need to do the two together. It is a somewhat sad commentary on our failure in Parliament to put these together that this debate is so poorly attended, with so few of your Lordships taking part—because we must crack this issue of investment in local services. I am delighted to see that my noble friend Lord Kennedy is replying to the debate. He is a distinguished local councillor. Of the few of us who are here today, many are distinguished leaders of or have played parts in local authorities. Unless we can get this right, we are not going to crack the bigger problem of our whole relationship with Europe and our membership of the European Union.
I want to address the issue of housing. The speech by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was interesting and revealing. He talked about improving housing administration and the quality of local authority housing stock, but I suggest that that prospectus is not bold enough for the future.
I apologise for intervening, but we have plenty of time today. I was talking not about local authority housing but about private sector landlord housing in areas of poor housing.
The point is the same, my Lords. If we are to tackle this housing crisis, what is needed is a bold new programme led by district councils and lower-tier authorities—because they are housing authorities—of building new council housing. They should work in partnership with housing associations to improve dramatically the stock of social housing and affordable housing, which is a significant part of the social crisis that the country faces.
One of the biggest changes in public policy over the past 40 years has been that the provision of social and affordable housing, which was regarded as a core function of the state until the 1980s, has totally ceased to be. We need to be self-critical in this: I do not think that the Government of which I was a part did nearly enough. We thought that market-based solutions would meet needs for lower-cost housing; they manifestly have not.
I spent, for my sins, a large part of last night reading the third volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, which I recommend to your Lordships—indeed, some of those whom I see here in the House today feature in it. It is an important contribution to political history. One of the most remarkable things about it is that council housing, which used to be one of the biggest political issues in the 1960s and 1970s, does not feature at all in that volume—it covers the years from 1987 to the end of Lady Thatcher’s career—except in one passing reference to council house sales, which was the only council house policy that Margaret Thatcher had in her 11 and a half years in Downing Street.
The facts are now the facts: the average home in England this year costs eight times more to buy than the average salary; the average share of income that young families spend on housing has trebled over the past 50 years; because of the shortage of social and affordable housing, the number of people living in the private rented sector has doubled in the past 20 years, and private renters spend on average 41%—nearly half—of their household income on rent. Surprise, surprise, a majority, 57%, of private renters are now struggling to pay housing costs, and one in three low-earning renters has to borrow money to pay their rent. Some 800,000 people who are renting cannot afford to save even £10 a month; 27% of private renters receive housing benefit or the housing element of universal credit, which is approximately 1.3 million households nationwide. Meanwhile, the Government spend £21 billion a year on housing benefit because of the very high level of rents, which they have jacked up by removing subsidy and not building more social homes. Last year, only 6,463 new social homes were built nationwide. There are about 1.5 million fewer social homes today than there were in 1980.
I do not want to do death by statistics, but I think that your Lordships get the picture. What has essentially happened in the last generation is that we totally stopped building new social homes publicly. Housing associations filled the gap to a very modest extent, but not nearly sufficiently. We have had significant population growth in that time, alongside the cessation of social home building; a substantial proportion of the country cannot get near the affordable housing ladder, let alone buy housing; and we have a private rented sector in which Rachmanite, disgraceful, slum-type conditions are increasingly common, with local authorities having neither the power nor the resources to deal with them.
What should be the policy? It is very clear to me, because to all big questions there is usually a simple and correct answer—there is often a simple and wrong answer, too. The simple and correct answer to this crisis is for local authorities to start building social housing again. They should do this in partnership with housing associations, but they should be the prime movers because they are the public authorities—and they should build social housing at the level at which they did in the 1960s and 1970s, to deal with the chronic housing crisis.
At the moment there is precious little movement towards this. It is true that councils are building houses again in a very modest way, compared to the period from the mid-1980s until a few years ago when they were building none at all. But it is very modest; it is scratching the surface, and we now need a revolution in policy. To give some idea, the London Borough of Lambeth, for which I was looking at the statistics recently, is building fewer than 100 new social homes a year; it needs to build 1,000-plus to deal with this issue. So we need about a tenfold increase in the rate of new building at the moment. To put that in context, in just that one London borough, Lambeth—I am sorry to keep referring to London and the south-east, which may offend the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, but there are big problems there, too—the council house waiting list is 28,000. That is in a London borough that is able to build fewer than 100 new homes a year. We need to move these two figures much, much closer to each other.
The noble Viscount, who always does his best to reply to our debates, will I hope be able to give us some facts, and I would like to put a few questions to him. The situation that we are in now, which I have seen very often in public policy, is that everyone admits there is a problem—I do not think that anyone who follows me in this debate will say that there is not a big problem—but the difficulty that we face is that the policies do not remotely match the scale of the problem that most people have identified. At the moment, the noble Viscount and his party are in government, so this is a charge which faces them as to what they are doing about it. They have accepted that there needs to be new social housebuilding, but they are doing precious little about it.
I have three specific questions about policy. First, if there is to be significant new housebuilding led by local authorities, it can come from only one of two sources: either grant funding from central government and/or the capacity of local authorities themselves to borrow in advance of the receipts that they will get from then renting out the social housing. Of course, it was a combination of the two that produced the scale of council and social housebuilding in the 1960s and 1970s. The Government have introduced two policies in this respect. They have restored some grant funding to local authorities in respect of housing, but the amount is pitifully small and typically provides only for less than one-third of the cost of new social units. So what is the Government’s policy going forward? Are they going to significantly increase grant funding in respect of new social housing provided by local authorities and, if so—since I am told that unless that grant funding is in excess of 50%, it is very difficult to get building at volume—will the Government be prepared to look at increasing the grant funding to 50% of the cost of providing new social housing?
In respect of borrowing, the situation is more urgent. What we are seeing at the moment is a serious regression in policy on the part of the Government. One of the most welcome things that Theresa May did in her time as Prime Minister was announce an end to the borrowing cap in respect of local authorities building new housing. This was a deeply felt restraint on local authorities that had applied for the best part of a generation. Even though they could borrow cheaply from the Public Works Loan Board—which was the way that local authorities borrowed—and were able to service debt from rents to build new social housing, they were banned from undertaking the borrowing. Theresa May lifted that borrowing cap, which was extremely welcome, but earlier this month the Government announced unilaterally, with no consultation—smuggled out in a Statement on one of those many days when there were many other Brexit-related announcements so that almost no one noticed—that the borrowing rate from the Public Works Loan Board was going to be increase overnight from 1.81% to 2.82%.
We should let that sink for a moment: an increase of nearly 50% overnight in the borrowing rate levied on local authorities in the only place that they can borrow— except at the going market rates, which of course would make all of this totally unaffordable. The word on the street, which I put to the noble Viscount so that he can deal with it when he replies, is that the reason this was done is that the Treasury, which never wanted the borrowing cap lifted in the first place, is now trying to sabotage the whole principle of public borrowing by local authorities by massively increasing the interest rate, hoping that no one will notice.
I was, until the Brexit crisis came along, chairing the National Infrastructure Commission, so I know only too well how the Treasury works in these matters. That interpretation of what is happening seems to me to be extremely plausible. Can the noble Viscount tell the House why the borrowing rate from the Public Works Loan Board for local authorities wanting to borrow to build new housing has been increased from 1.81% to 2.82%? Is this a fixed policy? Finally, because I am always trying to be constructive—and I know the noble Viscount is, too—will he consider reviewing that policy? Will he meet me and other noble Lords who are concerned about this issue to discuss public borrowing by local authorities to build new social housing and how it can be done on an affordable basis?
Is the noble Lord satisfied that there is space in Lambeth to provide housing for 28,000 more people? It is all very well to say that we have to provide housing for people who need it, but if you are talking about a particular area they want to live in, there has to be the space for the housing.
Yes, I am satisfied, and I would be very glad to do a walking tour of the London Borough of Lambeth to explain to the noble Lord how it can be done, starting with the huge issue of the redevelopment of Waterloo station. It desperately needs redeveloping; Waterloo is the biggest terminus in Europe and if it were redeveloped it could provide huge opportunities for new social housing. If the noble Lord is up for it, we will do it and we will work out how we can provide that housing—and I would like the Minister to come along, too, because then something might actually happen.
My Lords, far be it from me to interrupt the private arrangements of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, but I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Greaves for securing this timely debate. I hope I will not tread on his toes with my comments, but I want to build on what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said about more collaborative working, as well as on the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, about the need for libraries.
I begin with the position of local councillors, because they are at the other end of the spectrum. To give a brief example, in a previous life, as a young councillor in Stockport, I collected the diaries of Tony Benn. They are an interesting insight into being in government, in opposition and—as at the unfortunate time when I got the book—in what are called the wilderness years; the term is quite apt at the moment. I got my copy and went up to Manchester to get him to sign the book for me. He found out that I was a councillor and said, “I really feel sorry for you, because local councillors have the worst of all worlds. You’re not MPs and you’re not Ministers. You get all the money from government and you have no power. If something goes right, the Government claim it. if something goes wrong, you get blamed for it locally”. It was a position he would not have wanted to be in. I left with my shoulders down, thinking that my career was starting on a pessimistic note. Having said that, we carried on and we petitioned the Government. All Members here who have been in local government have probably made the trek on the train, with the chief officers, to meet a Minister for a nice drink of tea and a biscuit. They will have received the warm words and been sent back on the train—another day of your life gone when nothing happened. That was the never-increasing circle of how local authorities used to work.
Fast forward another 15 or 20 years, and I became leader of Stockport Council, albeit in a different political party—I was in the Liberal Democrats by then. I was determined to change the perception of local councillors and to try to affect the funding formula, because it was the funding formula that was always the problem. As fate would have it, devolution was coming to Greater Manchester. There was an appetite and a belief that we could do things differently and more collaboratively to get more bang for our buck. That was thanks to Howard Bernstein, Richard Leese and one or two others. We 10 councils stuck together and decided to pool our wits and, more importantly, our money, and we got the first ever city deal, the first ever combined authority and the first ever LEP in the country.
We are seeing the benefits of that now: Greater Manchester gets a £7 billion health budget in one lump sum. Those 10 leaders distribute that on the basis of need, instead of it being salami-sliced, with every council not getting enough. The ability to do that is really what I want to talk about. It can filter down even to a local council such as Pendle, and to small authorities and district councils. If there is a will to work together, we can get better bang for our buck, but there needs to be more trust and we need more faith in each other: we need to believe that this is for the greater good.
Today, LGA surveys paint a different picture of councillors. When asked, “Who do you trust to deliver local services?”, 75% answered local councillors, 12% MPs and 12% government. I will not read the percentage for government Ministers for fear of embarrassment, but be assured that it was a single digit. The irony is that local councillors now get less funding, have more public trust and have to deliver worse services. Quite frankly, I am glad I do not have to be involved in that.
I make the following observations on this timely debate. Government funding comes in strategic and non-strategic forms. We know what strategic funding is for: services for older people and children’s services—the essentials. But non-strategic funding is just as important, for libraries, heritage and sport. These are the services that take the brunt now because other services have to be protected. But more people a week now go to libraries than to Premier League football matches. They are no longer dusty old places where pensioners go for a drink of tea. They are learning hubs and fantastic assets to local authorities, and they should be protected.
There are other things local councils can be involved in. The creative industries are worth £84 billion a year and include museums and places that can attract people who spend the money that creates the jobs in your economy. The tourism industry is worth £127 billion. These are big numbers and local authorities should be getting their slice. If you are a bit more imaginative about partnership working, you can begin to get some of that money back. It is not all doom and gloom, but the Government are not going to change the funding regime overnight—it is not going to happen. We have to be smarter and cleverer about how we stretch that money.
I want to talk about the housing plan of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I am not saying that in Stockport we have a silver bullet, because we do not, but over 20 years ago we sat down with five local social housing providers and we offered them land for free—we gave it up. They built the houses and we put the tenants in. We built thousands of houses that way in Stockport, to such an extent that, when it was finished, they came back and said, “We’ve actually have a surplus, so we can either reduce the rent or build some more”. We said, “Build some more!”. That model worked, even then, and I see no reason why it should not work now. We now have Stockport Homes, an arm’s-length company. It has enormous headquarters with a board, and is building homes in Stockport town centre, where you need to build homes and can really connect communities. It is not building flats but one-bedroom, two-bedroom, three-bedroom and four-bedroom houses, in town centres where people come to work and thrive. When you do that, you begin to get an economy, and it is the dividends from that economy that bring things forward.
My two thoughts, for what they are worth, are these. Government is almost like Newton’s theory: for every action, there is a reaction. As you cut and make things more difficult—fewer police, less youth provision, fewer parks and recreation facilities—the people affected by that will do something else. In my opinion, that something else will cost more. If we can turn that egg-timer over and get it going back the other way, toward investment, that is how we can have more social cohesion, fewer gangs, less theft and less lack of respect for property and people. It can be done.
It does not happen automatically for local councils. But my noble friend is right that, for somewhere such as Pendle or a small district council in the south, you can make a difference if you work together with other people. You have to understand that, sometimes, you have to put tribal loyalties aside—perhaps I will get into trouble with my Whips for saying that. We are here for one thing: to serve the people. We have to deliver services for local people as best we can. There is no money tree, but if we work together correctly across political parties, as we have done in Stockport for years, we can move forward.
Finally, on sport, Bury Football Club is going out of business, and the effect that will have on the economy in Bury will be critical. Stockport was in a similar position. The Liberal Democrat group supported Stockport County and the Labour group now running Stockport do the same. We secured the Stockport County ground. Stockport County’s average gate at home is about 3,000 to 4,000, plus away people, so every other week the economy of Stockport and Edgeley gets 4,000 people in the cafes, bars and food places. People need to understand that. They say, “Football clubs—nothing to do with us”, but clubs in small towns are just as important as factories. I make a plea to people. When they say, “Oh, Bury Football Club—too bad. How sad”, that is not the answer. You need to give it support. I understand that there are upwards of 20 football clubs on the edge, and if 20 more go, we really will see a decline in town centres and in living standards. We should resist that.
My Lords, may I speak briefly, for four minutes perhaps if I am permitted, in the break? I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for calling this important debate. In listening to what has been said, I reflect on the difficulties politically that we have been facing for quite some time now. We seem to be talking about a lack of stability and extremism, moving from “spend, spend, spend” to “cut, cut, cut”. We talk about the decision to stop building social housing and sell it off, and the consequences of that. I compare that to a country like Germany, for instance, which obviously has its own challenges, but it seems to have achieved a level of stability and continuity of policy over time. Looking at that from the point of view of children, young people and families, what they need above all is continuity and stability. Perhaps, therefore, the current crisis may be an opportunity to think about whether we might do politics a little differently in this country, being a bit more collaborative and consistent and a bit less confrontational and adversarial.
I will address three points briefly: housing, young people and the funding of strategic services. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, spoke eloquently about housing. Over the years, I have spoken with mothers in temporary accommodation, and it has been troubling to hear of their experience, most obviously of isolation. So often, because of the shortage of housing, they are placed a long way from their community—perhaps their ethnic community—and their family and friends, so they struggle because of that. They struggle with great uncertainty. I was speaking with a woman who had experienced domestic violence over many years. She had finally managed to escape from her husband, spent some time in a refuge and was then in temporary accommodation. She spoke of her great anxiety that she might be placed way outside London, where she had lived for many years and brought up her family. Obviously, this was impacting on her mental health, and brought with it the risk that her granddaughter, whom she was caring for, might be removed into local authority care. That is perhaps another reason for us to wish to remain in the European Union or to rejoin it. The housing issue, which people on the continent seem to address far better on the whole, is perhaps just one example of the success of the social contract there, which we seem to have been struggling with for many years. In the United States, which we seem now to be turning towards, they have a very shaky social contract.
On young people, the BBC recently produced a report on children and young people in Barrow-in-Furness. For many years, young people have been struggling there—there have been issues to do with drug and alcohol misuse—and the programme highlighted that younger and younger children are being drawn into evening activities around drinking, often turning up to school when they are unable to concentrate and falling asleep. We also have the continual worries about children and young people being involved in knife crime. Most of the victims of knife crime are young people themselves. I once worked in a hostel where I met a young black woman serving the food whose son had been knifed just recently, and we saw the impact that had on her.
I welcome the efforts that the Government are making to address that, but I worked for three years in various local authorities across London with children and young people—from 1982 to 1985, I think. I went with my gang of local young people to the local swimming pool and we made use of local parks. We need consistent investment in those assets for children and young people. We need to invest in youth services. I was sorry to hear that Pendle has lost half of its workforce. There are two key things if one wants to keep young people out of crime: you need to give them something to do, and you need to give them someone responsible and helpful to whom they can look up to do it with. In a sense, you are making a little gang of your own, you are doing something interesting together and they have a good person to do it with.
Finally—I may have spoken for too long already—is it reasonable to expect local taxpayers to fund strategic services, such as children’s services? Surely the Government need to invest more in children and family services from the national budget so that local taxpayers do not have to pay for children’s homes and the costly interventions that are a statutory duty on local authorities to deliver.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my registered interests as a councillor and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank my noble friend Lord Greaves for initiating this important debate on the current state of, and future prospects for, neighbourhood services. I also draw the House’s attention to the fact that our Benches are less full than they would have otherwise been because today many are attending the funeral of a very special Liberal Democrat.
The National Audit Office produced an excellent report last year on the financial sustainability of local authorities. The data provided in the report admirably illustrates the spending cuts meted out to neighbourhood services. It states that there has been a 49.1% real-terms reduction in government funding since 2010, which translates into a 28.6% real-terms cut in spending power. However, that paints only part of the picture, as there is considerable variation between local authorities. For example, metropolitan and unitary councils have seen a 38% cut in spending power on non-social care services, and the shire districts a 25% cut. Even then, there is huge variation within those figures. As my noble friend Lord Greaves demonstrated, areas of greater deprivation are less able to raise funding through local taxation, thus the cuts there have been even greater. Fifty per cent is a huge cut in any local authority’s funding to provide services.
Further detail of service cuts in this invaluable report shows that libraries have experienced cuts of 33%, parks 27%, community safety 51% and highway maintenance 37%. The LGA survey of public perception last year shows that resident satisfaction rates with services is falling and, for highway maintenance, falling quite sharply—no surprise there for anyone who has to use local roads. The service cuts are becoming increasingly obvious to our residents.
What does that mean in practice for people who are, after all, paying more and more in council tax for less and less? Local authorities have protected spending on vulnerable adults and children in local authorities with those responsibilities, and focused budget cuts on neighbourhood services. In my own council of Kirklees, this has resulted in, for example, the Red House Museum being closed. It was the home of a close friend of Charlotte Brontë and features significantly in her novel Shirley. Of course, local people want to keep the Red House open to the public and a recent petition attracted more than 3,000 signatures from all over the world in a matter of days, but to no avail.
Libraries have been transferred for volunteers to run, while parks have much-reduced grass cutting, with some areas being neglected altogether. Local roads are in a poor state, as they are everywhere, with the Local Government Association reporting this year that funding available for the maintenance of local roads has dropped by £400 million. Across the country, residents have seen the closure of services such as libraries and museums, or a significant reduction in their opening hours, along with a considerable downgrading of the standard of service in, for example, parks and play areas. Provision has virtually disappeared in, for example, services for young people, or, as some people still call them, youth services. These cuts have been made by closing buildings and, in many cases, then selling those assets. In other cases, the service reduction has been achieved by cutting employees, as my noble friend Lord Greaves pointed out. We now have 34% fewer professional librarians than eight years ago and professional food safety inspector numbers have dropped by a staggering 60%.
The cuts to some neighbourhood services would be even worse if it were not for the increase in or introduction of fees charged by local authorities, as the report from the NAO clearly shows. Although it is difficult to be precise, the figures point to the fact that around 10% of the costs of providing neighbourhood services are now being borne by fees and charges, which means that in a sense they are just another tax on local people. Services are being diminished and the costs, either through taxation or charges, are rising as a direct result of the Government’s savage cuts to local funding. Here I disagree with the comments of my noble friend Lord Goddard, who believes that all this could be transformed by greater collaboration and more efficient, effective working. Yes, some of that can happen and that action taken by local authorities during the austerity years has shown that services can be provided more efficiently and effectively. However, you cannot keep cutting funding. In the end, public funding is an essential requirement for the delivery of public services.
The other way that councils have sought to manage the sharp reduction in funding is by increasing the number of volunteers. Volunteers are a huge asset to any council and enable local people to get involved and to shape service provision in a way that was not as readily available just a few years ago. Valuable though they are, however, volunteers cannot be expected to be completely responsible for council buildings or to take responsibility for running a service formerly provided by paid professionals. Volunteers are frequently drawn from the ranks of retired people, so the sustainability of a heavy reliance on them has to be questioned.
What are the consequences of these dramatic changes in public service provision? The impact on individual services is well documented in expenditure reductions, employee cuts, building closures, council tax rises and increases in fees and charges. What is not yet clear is the totality of the impact measured across a community. What the Government do not seem to appreciate is that councils are not simply the commissioners and providers of disparate services. All councils aspire to create healthy, safe and vibrant communities. Each of these service cuts has a different impact on individuals within a community: children who find that the football pitch is not being maintained to its former high standard; young people for whom diversionary youth services are appropriate, who now find alternative distractions, not always to their benefit or that of local people; readers wanting to use a now closed library, or unemployed people who need a library with public access to computers to complete job applications; and those suffering from mental ill health for whom a calming park or open space is a refuge, who find that it is now not as clean and well cared for. As for potholed roads, they are an unwelcome cost to individuals and businesses. Can the Minister let us know whether the Government have made an assessment of the cumulative impact on communities and individuals of this very significant reduction in neighbourhood services?
Parish and town councils in many areas have been able to take over the provision of some neighbourhood services to the benefit of local people. Can the Minister say whether the Government will actively encourage the creation of parish and town councils, including within metropolitan and unitary district council areas?
Neighbourhood services provide a vital lifeline for many individuals, as well as opening opportunities for those in more deprived communities. Flourishing communities with effective neighbourhood services help reduce demand for front-line services such as the NHS and social care. I hope the Government will begin to understand the enormous contribution of neighbourhood services to the well-being of local communities and begin to reverse the cuts in funding that have had a devastating impact on these much-valued and essential services. We on this side understand the vital nature of community services and will invest in them, and give powers to communities to make the decisions that affect them, for the well-being of all.
My Lords, first, I refer to my entry in the register of interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Secondly, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on securing this important debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has vast experience in local government, which he clearly demonstrated with his introduction to this debate. He has raised the important issue of the levels of government resources for neighbourhood services provided by district councils and other local authorities. We have received some excellent briefing notes, which have been helpful in the preparation for this debate, from the Local Government Association, the Library of the House, the District Councils’ Network and others, and I thank them all very much for that.
I join noble Lords in paying tribute to elected councillors and the staff of local authorities. As the noble Lord, Lord Goddard of Stockport, said, when you visit local government you see that the work that councillors do is so important. They are the glue that keeps things together. It is really important to respect and value the work they do.
Things have been tough financially, and it is due in no small measure to the dedication of people elected and working in local government that many more crises have been averted in recent years. A 32.6% cut in real terms in local authority spending in non-social care services between 2010 and 2017 has created huge pressures on councillors, staff and communities. Although I accept that there have been some increases recently, the National Audit Office’s prediction is that, by the end of 2020, the reductions in funding from central government to local government will be 56.3%—a huge figure. Many organisations would have ceased to exist with a cut in expenditure of that level.
My noble friend Lord Adonis is absolutely right: we need to end austerity. We also need to stop Brexit. I agree with him in both respects. I am so pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, is in the Chamber now. I recommend that noble Lords read yesterday’s Hansard. His contribution on the regulations on the European elections in Gibraltar was marvellous, and every noble Lord should read it when they leave the Chamber.
Local government delivers a huge range of services, and district councils deliver 86 of the 137 essential services to cover 22 million people—40% of the population in England—and more than 68% of the country by area. They approve 90% of planning applications and enabled most of the housing completions in their areas in the last year. That gives noble Lords some idea of the work that district councils do. Those services and more are delivered by unitarity authorities and, in the two-tier county areas, social services, education and other services are delivered by county councils.
The noble Lord, Lord Goddard of Stockport, was absolutely right when he spoke of the benefits of local authorities working together. Greater Manchester is a great example of that; it has seen much success. Regardless of the political control over those authorities—various parties have had control in different years—they have continued to work together. As the noble Lord said, they have reaped the benefits of working together, and that is to their credit.
I agree generally with all that the noble Lord said in what was an excellent speech, and I fully support the points he made about Bury Football Club. What has happened there is tragic, and I support the local MP James Frith for the work he is doing. I had some problems with Dulwich Hamlet Football Club a year or so ago. We made some progress there, and the club is back in its place. Many noble Lords supported my campaign in the House, so I am grateful for that. I am also grateful that in Lewisham, where I live, the council and the new mayor saw the error of their ways and withdrew the CPO around Millwall Football Club. Hopefully, that club will go from success to success, with notable thanks to the campaigns by fans and local residents on its behalf.
The Motion from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, raises the issue of government support for neighbourhood services. We know that local government gets most of its funding from three main areas: council tax receipts; retention of business rates; and central government grants. I have already outlined the huge cuts in resources provided by central government.
Let us just look at some of the issues that local government is dealing with, with reduced resources, such as housing and homelessness. Money provided to reduce homelessness is very welcome, obviously, but for me there is too much emphasis on the Homelessness Reduction Act without a corresponding increase in resources to make that very desirable outcome a reality. I have raised this many times in this Chamber. Councils need long-term funding in place to deal with the problem of homelessness on a sustainable long-term footing. I do not believe we have that yet. The number of homeless people when you come to this House from any of the nearby stations—Waterloo, Charing Cross or Victoria—or through Westminster Tube station is a tragedy. That was not the case some years ago, and the Government have to do much more about it. In its excellent briefing, the LGA estimated that homelessness services are dealing with cost pressures from demand and inflation alone of £100 million a year. Statutory homelessness continues to rise, and 1.1 million remain on council housing waiting lists. That will remain the case unless a long-term solution is found.
One of the most frustrating things I hear is that, somehow, the local authority planning department is some sort of barrier to building houses. This is utter rubbish. Councils approve nine out of 10 cases that come before them, yet approximately 250,000 applications are approved without a brick being laid. Every year they give permissions, and it is very frustrating to hear this. Also frustrating is the position whereby the council tax payer is still subsiding the whole planning process. The LGA and others have for many years called for that to be dealt with. There has been an increase in the fees, which obviously is welcome, but the Government were also consulting on a further 20% rise in planning fees and have not decided yet. They need to decide that. From this Dispatch Box I have also called for the Government to find just one council in England to pilot some sort of transparent scheme of local fee setting and see where that goes. That could be very helpful. I cannot see the objection to finding one authority to pilot that and have a look at it.
As noble Lords have heard, waste and recycling services are important to local communities and are very much more in the public eye now. Since 2010, councils have continued to increase recycling rates, although central government funding for this has been reduced by about 60%. The Government’s resources and waste strategy is a significant step in the right direction towards improving waste and recycling services, and the LGA has called for businesses and manufacturers to pay the full cost of recycling in their areas. Much more needs to be done to boost recycling rates, raise standards and meet national targets and to improve important services such as street sweeping, refuse collection, caretaking and cleansing services.
Local authorities are responsible for the majority of the estimated 27,000 parks and green spaces in the UK, but they are struggling to continue to maintain them. They have been exploring a range of models for maintaining them, including working with voluntary groups and trusts to generate income. Where I live in Lewisham, there are a number of initiatives to get local people involved in maintaining their local green space. These have been moderately successful, but they are no substitute for park keepers and their staff keeping the place clean, tidy and looking nice.
Councils in England run a variety of leisure facilities, including grass pitches, swimming pools, sports halls and various other amenities. It is important for people to keep active as they get older, because it is good for their physical and mental health, but these services are under pressure. Many facilities are ageing, particularly swimming pools, and need to be updated and made better.
I agree with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, about community libraries. There are many good examples where local communities have taken over and run libraries. In Lewisham, there are good libraries at Crofton Park, New Cross and elsewhere run by the communities. They are providing community cafes and getting better footfall through the door but, again, these services are under pressure.
District councils are often responsible for maintaining key cultural infrastructure. They maintain the local heritage of their communities in local museums and afford residents the chance to see what is going on in their areas. The Mendoza review found that local authority museums were experiencing challenging circumstances. I grew up in Walworth, where the local museum was bequeathed to the borough by the Cuming family. It contains a valuable collection reflecting Southwark’s history and is much loved by the local community. However, it also needs to be supported.
We have a social care crisis which the Government need to address with new additional funding, recognising that we are all living longer. That is good news but medical advances mean that we could live 10, 20 or 30 years longer, often with chronic conditions with which we will need help and support, and it is important that there are local services available for local people. It is important that we get an agreed cross-party settlement on social care, which can stand the test of time, on how to fund these services. The issue cannot become a political football.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to the new homes bonus. I have spoken before about the robbing Peter to pay Paul strategy of the Government—taking from one area to fund another area—and that cannot carry on.
My noble friend Lord Adonis is right about the crisis in housing. I grew up on a council estate in Walworth. The home was clean, safe, warm and dry. My mum and dad worked and paid their tax and rent until they retired, and we were happy there. That is not the case now for young families who are trying to get a home. They cannot get a council house and getting something they can afford is a huge problem. I now live in an ordinary terrace house in Lewisham, which I bought 15 years ago with my wife, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley. I could not afford to buy the same house today—I could not afford the deposit or the mortgage payments—even though we are not badly off. People have that problem in many parts of our country.
My noble friend Lord Adonis has invited colleagues to go to Lambeth. I will invite them to come to Newham. I took the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, to Newham a few months ago, and he saw the great work being done by the council and the mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, in tackling rogue landlords. The council is doing a good job, and the noble Lord was impressed by the council but shocked by what he saw of the conditions that people have to live in. When he asked about the rent they were paying, the reply was shocking. I know the noble Viscount will visit there and any other noble Lord will be welcome. We could perhaps organise a trip there together. It would be good for noble Lords to see the conditions that people have to live in today.
I mentioned briefly the new homes bonus. When the noble Viscount replies to the debate, perhaps he will tell the House where we are on that.
District councils provide a variety of services which have a positive effect on public health and the public generally. I believe in the old adage that prevention is better than cure. Keep-fit classes, swimming, walking and other events are helpful and are important local services. In bringing my remarks to a close, I again pay tribute to local council and local authority staff. They do a wonderful job under difficult circumstances and they deserve our support.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for securing this debate and all noble Lords for their remarks. This is my first debate in my new role, although I have covered the department in the past as a Whip. I am, however, only too aware of the experience of the noble Lord in local government. If there is a verb “to Pendle”, the noble Lord could be described as a “much-Pendled” Peer. I am also aware of the experience and knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in this sector and the length of time that he has spent in his role on the Front Bench.
All types of local authorities play a central role in supporting communities, including the most vulnerable, across the country, and district councils are at the heart of delivering many of the key services that matter to communities. We have heard a lot about that today. We are grateful for the transformative changes they have championed and for their continued commitment to providing the day-to-day services that their residents rely on. The Government make it a priority to visit councils—including, I understand, Pendle this month—in order to see the issues and opportunities at first hand.
I want to be clear that it is not only upper-tier authorities that are a priority for this Government: we want all authorities, regardless of size, to know that their concerns are being heard. However, while we seek to understand and address the daily issues faced by councils, it is right that we step back and ask ourselves some strategic questions. What is the best model to serve local needs, especially for the most vulnerable groups? How do different authorities best work with their communities to meet the needs and priorities of local areas, which will no doubt differ across the country? The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, alluded to this in his remarks. What is the right balance between state intervention and support and the power of local democracy for local decision-making and authorities?
These are big questions and we must raise them. Indeed, it is not only me asking questions about the role of local government; the sector itself, including the Local Government Association, is constantly challenging itself to do better for all the people it serves. As my noble friend Lady Redfern said, there have been tough times. There continue to be challenging issues to address, but authorities are being innovative.
Social care services are essential to protect our most vulnerable. This is a priority for this Government. The Prime Minister has been entirely clear on this matter and I am keen today to dedicate some time to how we are supporting district councils and the universal services which neighbourhoods rely on. I will also be reflecting later on the important issues of empowerment and community—which I feel strongly about and which was a major theme in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.
I turn first to the spending round. This Government understand their responsibility to make sure that local authorities are adequately funded. I was pleased—as I am sure were all noble Lords—with the positive outcome of the spending round. Core spending power, the measurement we use for local government funding, is expected to grow by £2.9 billion for England, which is an estimated 4.3% real-terms rise. I know that the Secretary of State was delighted to have secured the largest year-on-year increase in spending power since 2010—a package which will allow councils to,
“provide more support for areas such as adult and children’s social care and make sure that we are supporting the most vulnerable people in our local communities”.
Beyond social care, we are protecting vital front-line services by increasing the biggest elements of core settlement funding in line with inflation, and we are consulting on a 2% core council tax principle for all councils next year. I take account of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on that issue. This significant result is a testament to what happens when we work together with the sector. I am grateful to councils up and down the country which fed into our preparations. The LGA has said that we provided local authorities with,
“much of the funding certainty and stability they need for next year”.
I shall address the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Kennedy, on the new homes bonus. The Government have previously noted that 2019-20 was the final year of new homes bonus funding as agreed in the spending review 2015, and that any funding beyond 2019-20 would need to be agreed as part of the next spending review. I understand that the new homes bonus represents an important part of district council budgets and can form a large percentage of core spending power. We have listened to requests from local authorities to honour previously announced legacy payments totalling £624 million. As part of the roll-forward settlement, the Government are minded to make a new round of allocations for 2020-21, and I would welcome views on our proposals.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, raised a point on the Public Works Loan Board. I am not particularly familiar with it, but I hope I can reassure him that the Treasury recently increased the margin that applies to new loans from the PWLB by 100 basis points on top of the usual lending terms. The Government also successfully legislated to increase the lending limit of the PWLB from £85 billion to £95 billion to reflect their commitment to ensuring that local authorities can continue to access the financing that they need to support their capital plans. Since this change took effect, my department has been engaging with the sector to understand the potential impact that it could have on its capital plans and strategies, especially with regard to housing and regeneration.
The Minister has not addressed my point about the substantial increase in the interest rate. I am not expecting him to be able to do so across the House, but will he write to me about it? Would he be prepared to meet me and other noble Lords to discuss this issue, which I understand is central to the ability of local authorities to borrow to build new housing?
I was coming on to address some of the other points on the subject of housing. I will come to the noble Lord’s point in a moment. He raised a number of questions and I want to be sure that he receives full answers.
The Government remain committed to business rates retention, which is yielding strong results, including for district councils. We are aiming to increase the level of retention from 50% to 75% from 2021 to give councils greater flexibility over their funding and to reward authorities for generating economic growth.
I now move on to the important issue of relative needs and resources. The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, warned against an easy formula of salami-slicing as opposed to better targeting. That is a very good point. The Government understand that demographic pressures have affected local areas in different ways, as has the cost of providing particular services. Councils told us that they wanted a simpler, up-to-date funding formula based on the best available evidence, and that is exactly what we are working to deliver. We are working closely with local government representatives to consider the drivers of local authorities’ costs, the resources available to them to fund services and how to account for them in a way that draws a more transparent and understandable link between local circumstances and local authority funding. This is a thorough, evidence-based review of the costs faced by all authorities. We have confirmed that we now aim to implement the review in 2021-22 so that the sector has the certainty that it needs to plan for 2020-21. It is important that we get direct feedback from local authorities, and we are grateful for the trusted links that we have across the sector. The more that we can consult, the more likely it is that we can get it right.
In looking ahead to the upcoming local government finance settlement, we have set out our proposals in a technical consultation which will close on 31 October. It sets out the package for local government in more detail and responds to the calls from the sector for certainty and stability. We will listen closely to the views and contributions from representatives of local government and aim to publish a response in the provisional local government finance settlement in early December.
I shall now address a number of questions that were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, mentioned the critical services on which all communities rely. He mentioned street cleaning, recycling, community services, libraries, housing and many others. I, too, recognise the critical role that all local authorities play in delivering these services. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, is right that parish councils play an important part in local services. I reassure her that we want them to grow and expand and that we are doing our best in our communities brief to do that. Councils have managed reductions in funding and people’s satisfaction with waste collection and libraries has largely held up. Satisfaction levels are high—but that does not mean that we are complacent.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke about provision of park and community services. We continue to support parks and community spaces. In fact, I am looking at this area particularly strongly at the moment to see what more can be done. In 2018-19, we invested £15 million in an innovative parks programme, and we will launch a new £1.35 million programme to support the next round of pocket parks very soon. Working with our partner, Pub is the Hub, we have funded almost 200 pub diversification projects, introducing new services that are of value to the community. The noble Lord spoke about waste management and climate change. He was right to raise these important global issues. Like the whole of government, my department supports the objectives of the Environment Bill. Local authorities, as local leaders, experts, place shapers and convenors of local communities, are empowered to play a fundamental role in delivering the environmental action needed in their areas.
My noble friend Lady Redfern, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, referred to libraries. I thank them for that. I have spoken on libraries in the past. I recognise the work of staff and volunteers. I know that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working closely with the noble Lord, Lord Bird, to look at the future of libraries in the 21st century. I understand that it is called the libraries task force. Many innovative approaches are being taken across the country, for example in Warrington, to bring services together in communities. My noble friend Lady Redfern and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, spoke about libraries having to innovate, and they are right.
Councils across the country are transforming not just how they work but their role in leading local places, strengthening local infrastructure and reinventing localities. Many areas are achieving fantastic results, such as district councils in former coalfield areas collaborating on First Art.
The noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Kennedy, spoke about social housing. I shall make a few remarks about housing; there is a lot more I could say, but I am not sure I shall have time. I am delighted to accept the invitation to visit. I think there were probably two visits, one with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and one with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. We have announced a comprehensive package of reform, which will support our ambition to raise housing supply by 300,000 per year by the mid-2020s. We are driving the delivery of affordable housing through measures such as the £9 billion affordable homes programme, abolishing HRA borrowing caps and setting a long-term rent deal for social landlords from 2020. This Government have seen housing supply increase by 1.3 million since 2010. We have also backed schemes such as Help to Buy and Right to Buy, which have supported more than 566,000 households to purchase a home.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, raised a number of questions. I shall look at Hansard to make sure that his questions receive detailed answers.
I shall pick up on what the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said about homelessness. It is an issue that we take incredibly seriously in the department under my honourable friend Luke Hall. I thank the noble Earl for his contribution, and I was saddened by the stories he shared with us. He is right that funding is needed alongside community support. That is why, alongside the additional £2.9 billion for local government, this Government are committing over £1.2 billion to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, and a flexible homelessness support grant of £670 million. The Chancellor also announced an increase in the level of funding for public health grant so that local authorities can continue to invest in prevention, which, as I am sure the noble Earl agrees, is most important.
I now turn to the communities section of my remarks —an area I regard as very important. The Government are committed to continuing to build strong communities where people feel proud of their neighbourhoods and are actively involved in local decision-making. As my noble friend Lady Redfern said, local government, including the district councils that provide important neighbourhood services, is a vital partner in supporting communities across the country. We also want communities themselves to take an active role in changing their area for the better, because there is much power and potential in our communities. Across the country we see examples of local people coming together and leading change, from community clean-ups and community groups running valued front-line services, to volunteers in libraries, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Redfern. The Government want to continue to unlock that potential and help create an environment where all our communities feel empowered.
That mission is at the heart of the Government’s approach to communities, and, in case there was any doubt, I can say that I am involving myself with great enthusiasm in this area. As the noble Lords, Lord Goddard and Lord Kennedy, said, it is a question of collaboration and integral working to achieve more. As we have discovered, when organisations work together, they are better placed to apply for specific new funding.
This summer my department published a new communities framework, setting out a vision of how we can strengthen our communities with four areas of focus. The first is building trust and local pride. High levels of trust and social capital are a crucial building block for a thriving integrated community and for our nation’s well-being and economic prosperity. We want people to feel a sense of pride and connectedness in where they live and to build strong local relationships. That is why my department is supporting work to overcome barriers to integration and help bring people together. That work includes the Near Neighbours scheme, which has supported over 1,600 local community projects, bringing together people from different backgrounds to tackle local issues; programmes to help people improve their English skills, which I believe was mentioned this afternoon, so that they can become part of community life—some people who have been in this country for decades have not addressed that, so we have high hopes—and the Integration Area programme, which is working with five local councils to overcome integration challenges and share their learning, with an additional £10 million announced for the second wave of areas in 2020.
Secondly, I want to focus on active citizenship and giving communities control over local decision-making. This Government are focused on pushing power down and enabling decisions that affect local people to be made at the local level. We will continue to support the community rights and powers established under the Localism Act, such as neighbourhood planning, which enables communities to develop a shared vision for their area for the future.
The third area is shared community spaces. In our busy world, it is becoming increasingly challenging to connect with one another, but shared spaces such as our parks, which were referred to this afternoon, community centres, pubs and libraries provide the vital community infrastructure that brings people together. We have provided additional funding for our parks, which I mentioned earlier, with a new £1.35 million programme, working with our partner Pub is the Hub, which I also mentioned earlier.
The fourth area is shared economic prosperity, with no community left behind. We know that some communities have not shared in the wider economic growth experienced in the UK. The Government are committed to building strong communities that help create a thriving and inclusive economy, and to ensuring that prosperity is shared.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke about towns and high streets. He will know about this but we have committed to a £3.6 billion towns fund, and local people will have a say in how that money is spent. He spoke about competition but it is right that there is a competitive approach. Towns are being invited to approach us and to put in, in effect, business plans setting out how they can reinvigorate their high streets. We want to work closely with them to make sure that funding is directed to the right place. I hope he will forgive me when I say that, in this area, I think competition is a good thing.
Through our support for those four areas of work—trust and local pride, active citizenship, community spaces and shared prosperity—the Government will continue to work to empower communities.
I recently visited Walsall, which is one of our integration areas, and met several community groups and organisations doing amazing work to support local people. I met groups running English classes to enable people to increase their confidence, make the most of the opportunities available, and play a full and active role in the local community. I also heard about the Places of Welcome scheme, which tackles loneliness and social isolation by providing places where people can go simply to see a friendly face or have a cup of tea and connect with others. This is an example of what can be achieved when local government works in partnership with local actors to build stronger and more integrated communities. It is one thing that I will definitely continue to press ahead with.
In conclusion, I assure noble Lords that this Government are committed to providing local government with the funding it needs and to ensuring that the funding is both flexible and proportionate to an area’s demographic needs. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, spoke about homelessness and I want to write to him on that specific point.
My Lords, I thank everybody who has contributed to this debate. At the beginning I was a bit worried that not enough people were taking part, but I think we have proved that, if the people taking part have a good enough argument and narrative and know what they are talking about, allowing them time to develop what they say can be better than them having to rush through a two or three-minute speech.
I think I have a couple of minutes in which to speak —I cannot see anyone objecting to that—so I would like to respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, and my noble friend Lady Pinnock on libraries. If anyone ever finds themselves near the town of Colne, they should give me a ring and I will take them to Trawden in the Lancashire Pennines. It used to be a weaving village but is now very much a middle-class professional village. The Trawden community centre, which used to be run by the council, has taken over an old nursery and turned it into the only village shop, which is thriving as a community shop, and it works in partnership with the county council to run the local library. That is a superb example of how that kind of thing can be really successful. I should declare an interest as a non-active member of the community interest company that runs it. Therefore, it can be done and the service provided is far better than it ever was under the council. However, that will not happen everywhere. In poorer and working-class areas, it can be, and often is, done, but it requires a greater input of resources and harder work if the people taking part do not already have the skills that retired professional people have, so it is not the answer to everything.
I say to my noble friend Lord Goddard that what Stockport Council has done with the ground at Stockport County FC is brilliant. In Colne, where I live, Pendle Council owns the land of Colne FC, another up-and-coming non-league club. Colne FC has a free 99-year lease on the ground. That is the sort of thing that can be done. I know of other non-league clubs that have been put out of business by their councils demanding unpaid rent and the clubs having to go into liquidation. You can see the difference when a council regards its community as important, even if something like a local football club is owned not by the council but perhaps privately.
I shall not go through everything the Minister said—apart from anything, he would not allow that—but I will read what he said very carefully. I am very grateful for his comments and no doubt we will have many discussions about them in the future.
I have one final thing to say about neighbourhood services. I stress that I am talking about neighbourhood services, not local government as a whole. We have squeezed the pips until they squeal. We have cut to the bone. We have built partnerships with the private and voluntary sectors and got private sector money in. We have transferred services to town and parish councils, which often run them in a more community-oriented manner and much more cheaply. We have harnessed the volunteers who are there and will continue to do so. As I said in my original speech, however, we are reaching the end of this process in many places. Neighbourhood services will start to collapse seriously unless more resources are put into them. For as long as I am an active Member of your Lordships’ House, I shall continue to harass the Government over this matter.