Over the next few weeks, local authorities across the country will be announcing their budgets for the coming year. This will be the fifth year in a row that councils will be subject to the biggest cuts to our budgets since the Second World War.
The Tory-led Government has targeted local government, arguably the most efficient part of the state, for the largest cuts in their austerity programme. By taking away over 40% of our funding, councils have had to make some extremely difficult choices. We’ve also had to find ways to cover for cuts in Government money for the most vulnerable people in society – like the Local Welfare Provision Fund which was cruelly abolished just before Christmas.
I believe that Labour councils across the country have done a good job in coping with the Government’s attack on vital services. By making tough choices, but with the right priorities, Labour councils such as the one I lead in Islington have been able to protect libraries, children’s centres, leisure centres and still make a difference for our communities by building more homes, getting people back to work and improving our schools. Local government has coped much better, with larger cuts, than other parts of the public sector.
But the simple truth is that we can’t carry on like this.
Islington has now seen fully half our government funding cut since 2011. We’re the 9th worst hit local authority in the country this year – with the poorest areas seeing the biggest cuts across the country.
The idea that in future years local government will continue to shoulder the heaviest burden as the cuts continue is one that fills me with absolute dread.
Announcements from Ed Balls and others before Christmas about devolution to local councils of genuinely significant budgets were extremely welcome. But news this week that the Labour frontbench appear to be accepting that local government would still face the brunt of cuts early in the next parliament is deeply worrying.
You can’t carry on finding efficiencies and relatively painless ways of doing more for less. Councils are now on a cliff-edge, with the pain-free ways of saving money fast running out. The services my council and many other Labour-run councils have been able to protect so far – libraries, children’s centres and school crossing patrols – may not be able to be protected much longer if the cuts continue at the scale and pace this Government has pursued.
Councils will be forced into making cuts that are deeply damaging to their communities and simply pile costs onto other bits of government.
What would be the future for adult social care – the area most councils spend the largest proportion of their budgets on – if the cuts continue to be directed at local government? I obviously support Labour’s commitment to protect the NHS and to deliver the doctors and nurses our hospitals are crying out for – but if cuts are made to adult social care, that work to save the NHS will be undermined. We all know that providing high quality and responsive adult social care actually saves the NHS money and reduces the pressures on A&Es. We’ve seen what happens in recent days because our hospitals are already at crisis point.
Labour has done well in local government since 2010. Labour councils have set the policy agenda and been electorally successful, taking back control of the Local Government Association after a decade of Tory control. Labour councillors make-up the core of the Party’s activist base – central to our general election strategy. Major further cuts to councils made under a Labour Government would see our more than 7,000 councillors treated as collateral damage and the Party’s grassroots would shrivel.
The decisions are still being taken on how a Labour Government allocates the limited resources that will be available after the election.
We’re not unrealistic. We know the money we had in 2010 isn’t coming back. There are ways of protecting services on less money, and I will set some of them out on LabourList next week. But the simple truth is that continuing to cut local government will cause real harm to our communities and cost the government more in the long-term.
Cllr Richard Watts is Leader of Islington Council