Theresa May claims to not have a magic money tree, but whenever she raids the back of the sofa she always comes up with the money she needs: there was the £1bn she found for Northern Ireland and then the £20.5bn for the NHS. Well now she needs to go back to that sofa and find the money for local government because without the resources they need councils are teetering on the cliff edge.
Since 2010 councils have been expected to do more and more with less and less, and the public have been told to expect less for more. Except there comes a point, a ‘crisis point’, when councils don’t have the resources required to provide the services we have come to expect. Eight years of austerity has left councils like a precarious Jenga tower, just one block away from collapse.
We only have to look across the Severn Bridge to see what is around the corner if local government doesn’t receive the funding it so urgently needs. Northamptonshire Council effectively declared itself bankrupt because it couldn’t set a balanced budget, while East Sussex Council has stripped back their services to provide just the legal minimum. Torbay Council immediately suspended non-urgent spending in an attempt to deal with significant financial challenges and Somerset County Council has asked staff to take two days unpaid leave so the authority can save money.
But let’s be clear about one thing, these are not free-spending ‘looney-left’ Labour councils that have ended up in financial difficulties, these are Conservative-run councils. The Conservative UK Government have slashed the local government budgets and then Conservative-run councils have ended up in financial strife, all because of austerity.
Local Government has been the biggest victim of the Government’s austerity agenda, suffering billions of pounds of cuts. Council services are in decline, people are at risk, and staff are at breaking point.
The Local Government Association, the National Audit Office, Council leaders, Assembly Members and Members of Parliament have all warned the UK Government that they are at breaking point, but the UK Government have continue to stick to the path of self-defeating austerity.
It’s anticipated that around 300 councils are under such financial pressures they will completely empty their reserves by 2022.
Neath Port Talbot have already removed £77million from its budget since 2010. A further £15.3million needs to be removed in the next financial year and £63.9million between now and 2023. Over the next four years savings amounting to 27% of the overall budget need to be made.
Unprecedented budget cuts have been coupled with unprecedented demand on public services. Theresa May’s money for the NHS will not go very far if social services are not properly funded, the two are intrinsically linked. A struggling social services will put more pressures on the NHS.
With council budgets being heavily squeezed it is residents who are footing the bill. They are witnessing the loss of facilities like community centres, libraries and sports facilities, the services that remain are reduced or centralised. At the same time they are being asked to contribute more to plug the funding gap.
Difficult decisions have been made by councillors, and these decision are as unpalatable in the council chamber as they are in the community. Council staff, councillors and the community have all played their part to try to plug these budget black holes. Staff at Neath Port Talbot have faced a pay-freeze and then a pay cap, but they have also contributed to plugging the funding gap.
Communities have taken on the responsibility for services like libraries and community centres. When the Government have stood by, our communities have stood up, but they should not have to. Community action should be in addition to the state not in place of it.
If the Government should learn anything from the examples of Northamptonshire, East Sussex, Torbay and Somerset, it is that now must be the time when they abandon their austerity agenda, dig deep and give local government the funding it so desperately needs.
The magnitude and the scale of the budget gap means many Councils, like Neath Port Talbot, are reaching a tipping point. The trade-off and consequences of these extremely difficult choices will be far-reaching and will be felt for years to come.
Councils across Wales and the UK have had no other option than to reduce the valued and vital everyday services residents have come to rely on because this government has utterly failed local government, forcing many authorities to provide just basic services after cutting their funding to the bone.
It is clear that current levels of funding cannot go on like this, and unless something drastic is done more councils will go the same way as Northamptonshire, East Sussex, Torbay and Somerset.
Better funding is desperately needed for local government if we are to avoid more councils reducing their services to the legal minimum or declaring themselves bankrupt. Councils must be given the resources they need if they are to continue to produce a balanced budget and meet their statutory obligations.
When they want to the UK Government finds the money they need. Now they need to find the money that local government needs
The UK Government is in a position to change the landscape for local government: by improving the local government settlement. They have an opportunity in the autumn budget to help councils to continue to provide these valued services, and they must take that opportunity.
Article written by Cllr Carol Clement-Williams, Neath Port Talbot Council Cabinet Member for Finance, Mark Fisher, Chair Unison NPT, and Stephen Kinnock MP for Aberavon