For Labour in local government, on the frontlines of fighting austerity and protecting our most vulnerable residents from the worst of Tory cuts, we know that even the pre-election splash of the cash in Sajid Javid’s spending round this week does not reverse the damaging cuts over the last nine years. It is simply too little, too late.
Local government has faced a cut of 60p for every £1 the last Labour government was spending on local government. My own borough of Hackney has faced a £140m cut to our central government grant, working out at £529 per resident, and before these announcements we were predicting that we would still have a further £30m of savings to find over the next two years.
This, alongside the cuts to other public services, has increased demand on local authorities services as people are impacted by pressures on the NHS, police services and damaging welfare reforms. But the overall £3.5bn increase for local government announced this week isn’t all new money – it assumes council tax and business rate rises and represents in many areas just a continuation of existing temporary grants.
The Chancellor was keen to announce a short-term £1.5bn funding boost for social care to cover this government’s failings to publish a social care green paper, plan for a sustainable future for social care funding and help people in desperate need of good quality care, which we know would relieve pressure on the NHS. But in reality, a third of the one-off spending would be funded by a 2% council tax increase, and it does not cover the overall £2.5bn gap in social care funding.
The extra money for schools is welcome and has only been won because of the hard work of campaigners, the unions and the Labour Party in highlighting the growing crisis in our schools. But it should not take the funding situation to get so bad – with teachers having to ask parents to help pay for school supplies, and some funding it out of their own pay packets – for the Tories to act. Even now some estimates still show real terms cuts to Hackney’s schools, and it comes after a pay offer that has not been fully funded and other pressures such as business rate increases that have already stretched so many school budgets especially in high need areas. On SEND, further one-off funding of £800m – half the amount councils need.
There were also considerable gaps in the Tories’ spin, which did not address the real crisis situation that some of our most vulnerable residents are in. They could have returned some decency to the welfare system by lifting the punitive housing benefit caps, or used the 100th anniversary of the first Housing Act to announce grant funding for councils to build the desperately needed social homes for the country’s nearly 300,000 homeless families. Instead, they announced £54m for homelessness for the whole country. Hackney alone is spending that amount to support homeless families in our borough.
They could have recognised the need for a meaningful commitment to a new green economy, with many Labour councils declaring a climate emergency this year and resourcing plans to reach net-carbon-neutral public services. Instead of listening while the world’s lungs burn, they announced a pitiful £30m to the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs, nowhere near enough to meet their own net-carbon-neutral target by 2050.
But they chose to do none of these things, because austerity has always been a choice to keep tax for the few as low as possible and damaging services for the many in the process. Rather than a “new chapter for our public services”, austerity continues as councils like Hackney still face a budget challenge as need rises, and the situation is much worse across the country. We also need to be clear that we wouldn’t have even got this extra funding if it hadn’t been for the hard work of Labour at the LGA working with our front bench teams.
Finally, it is important to remember that school funding is the only announcement detailing new money for three years or more, with every other announcement being repackaged spending lasting for only one year. The Tories are preparing for a general election, and this is part of their strategy as they realise voters are tired of austerity. In reality, we know that only a Labour government will rebuild Britain, not just offer one off crumbs from the Treasury this side of the election and further cuts if the Tories get back into power.
It seems even these budget sweeteners are not sweet enough to keep Boris Johnson’s own brother on board, let alone the public. Christmas at the Johnsons’ should be fun.