Despite talk of ‘deal dividends’ and ‘Brexit bribes’, there seems to be no end in sight for local government when it comes to austerity. As the Local Government Association (LGA) recently highlighted “councils were at the front of the queue when austerity started,” yet they seem to be at right at the back when it comes to reversing the cuts.
Last month the LGA reported that “local government in England faces an overall funding gap of £8 billion by 2025.” They claim that this year’s forthcoming Spending Review will “be make or break for vital local services” and that “if the Government fails to adequately fund local government in the Spending Review then there is a real risk to the future financial viability of some services and councils.”
It’s worth highlighting the extent of the damage already done to local government since 2010. Councils are expected to have lost 60p out of every £1 the Government had formerly provided for services between 2010 and 2020. In the next financial year alone, the main government grant funding for local services is due to be cut by a further £1.3 billion (36 per cent).
This is certainly the picture painted by Unite members up and down the country facing job cuts, low pay, outsourcing and privatisation. The impact of the cuts has been devastating on service users and staff alike. Since 2010 the local government workforce has been cut by hundreds of thousands while local government workers continue to be the lowest paid across the public sector .
Social care, social work, libraries, road maintenance, children’s services, nurseries, refuse and recycling, parks, youth and play services, community centres, housing and homelessness – all have faced some form of cut backs, contraction or reorganisation since 2010. Unite members in community and voluntary sector organisations have also also suffered severely as councils seek to pass on cuts to grant funded, outsourced and commissioned services.
A recent damning report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalists and Huffpost UK found that the local government funding crisis has become so dire that councils have sold thousands of public spaces, such as libraries, community centres and playgrounds in order to plug budget gaps. In some cases, local authorities had used the money raised simply to pay for hundreds of redundancies, including in vital frontline services.
Such a fire sale approach does nothing to rebuild the long-term sustainability of councils and undermines their core capital base and their long-term capacity.
Yet rather than fix this crisis the Government appears to be doubling down on cuts. Analysts from the IFS and IoG predict that council budgets will continue to be slashed for the foreseeable future. The ‘end of austerity’ is safeguarded for the NHS, the Ministry of Defence and other ‘protected’ areas of government spending while ‘unprotected’ areas, such as local government, will continue to be cut.
Local authority cuts have not fallen on those “with the broadest shoulders” either. Rather, they appear to have been largely targeted at the poorest areas of the country . Nine of the ten most deprived councils in the country have seen cuts of almost three times the national average. Not content, the Government is continuing to make this inequality worse – consulting on funding reforms that will disproportionately benefit wealthier councils.
The Government’s bungling of Brexit negotiations has not made matters better with council leaders concerned about replacing EU Social Funds and the local economic impact that Brexit uncertainty is having on major employers in their area. For example Unite shop stewards have reported social workers being put onto rolling one-year contracts due to uncertainty over EU Social Funding.
So if the Chancellor does find the mythical “magic money tree” again next week to try to sure up May’s unpopular Brexit deal, Unite will be demanding it is used to reverse local government cuts and rebuild our local authorities. Our communities deserve better!
- This comment piece first appeared on the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) blog.