I quite often hear that politics is boring. As a politician, obviously I completely disagree, but I do understand how it can sometimes sound overly complex, dry or remote from real life. One topic which sounds particularly dry and complicated is local government finance, but it really couldn’t be less remote from our everyday lives. Our local councils need to be funded properly to deliver a whole range of services that we all rely on, from bin collection and street cleaning to adult social care to planning and licensing.
Since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010, central Government funding for our councils has been slashed, with our councils losing the equivalent of 60p out of every £1 that they received under the last Labour Government. These are easy cuts for the Government to make as they force councils to make difficult decisions and take blame, rather than the people at the top of Government who decided to make the cuts in the first place.
With councils already struggling financially, the Coronavirus outbreak poses a big threat as so much of the frontline response – including supporting shielded people and local businesses – fell on the shoulders of our councils. Council leaders were relieved, therefore, when the Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick repeatedly told them at the start of the crisis that they should spend “whatever it takes” to deal with the outbreak and that the Government would repay them the costs. Taking him at his word, councils across England spent what was needed to support their communities.
Stockport’s Labour council, for instance, has really risen to the challenge, not just in supporting the borough through the crisis but also in doing the right thing and preparing for what comes afterwards.
Unfortunately, it has become apparent that the Government does not intend to fulfil its promise to fund “whatever it takes”. In Stockport alone, this will leave about a £34 million gap in the Council’s budget. The issue isn’t just confined to our borough – the crisis will cost councils across Greater Manchester around £732 million, leaving a funding gap of £368 million even after some emergency support from the Government.
Unless the Government is true to their word, we could see councils across the country go bankrupt. And this isn’t party political, around 80% of councils are thought to be close to bankruptcy and this includes councils of all political persuasions covering everything from large cities to the most rural areas. For the sake of the services we all rely on, the Government needs urgently to give councils the funding they need.