Stephen Houghton

Local Government must be central to Labour's 5 Missions

Posted on March 02, 2023

Councils are now agreeing their budgets for the next financial year. Despite regular claims from the government that austerity was over, councils up and down the country are being forced to make savings, many for the thirteenth year in a row.

While the recent settlement may not have been as bad as many feared, the new funding will be eroded by inflation and increasing demand. Councils are having to do a lot more with a lot less – for Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities (SIGOMA) councils it is on average 25% less, in real terms, compared to 13 years ago.

Public services are an important part of supporting the quality of life for the most vulnerable and deprived communities – whether that be housing provision, social care, or local leisure facilities. Cuts in these services risks local wellbeing and economic growth and the evidence suggests that it is the most deprived areas that are falling behind on life expectancy and local prosperity.

Since ‘levelling up’ was adopted as a government mantra, we have consistently argued that reversing the cuts to local government and delivering sustained increasing investment must be a central part of this agenda.

This is also true for the Labour Party’s plans for government. The ‘5 Missions’ published last week contained many welcome elements and much that will benefit people in this country. Central to success in each of the 5 missions will be a strong, well-funded and effective local government. As the Labour Party begins to release more information relating to how these missions are to be achieved, the role of local government should be placed front and centre.

For example, one of the central parts of this mission is to ‘reduce heath inequalities’. Health inequalities blight our country, and it is clear that many have worsened over the 13 years of austerity since 2010.

In Barnsley, health life expectancy at birth for males is 6.5 years lower than the national average and our rate of death from Covid was 57% higher. A clear step in helping to achieve this part of the mission would be to reverse the cuts to the Public Health Grant. The Health Foundation estimate funding to be 24% lower per person compared to 2015/16, with the cuts generally higher in more deprived areas. Publishing allocations in a timely manner would be a good first step; we still await 23-24 allocations.

Local government should also play a key role in other elements of the Missions, including driving economic growth as important place leaders, breaking down barriers to opportunity and leading the drive to net zero.

Sir Keir Starmer was asked what policies would make a difference ‘from day 1’ after his speech announcing the 5 Missions. One that would help the most deprived areas and that has the advantage of being cost neutral would be a ‘reset’ of accumulated business rates growth. This would move around £2.5bn of funding currently allocated on the basis of growth to one based on needs. This would increase funding for the most deprived areas. This was promised in 2020 and has been delayed until 2025.

The Fair Funding Review, also planned for 2020, has similarly been delayed to 2025. An incoming Labour Party would face an urgent review of the existing formulae, elements of which use data going back 20 years. Whatever this review is called it is vital that, for the 5 Missions to succeed, deprivation must be central to the new formulae and not be diminished in impact, as was proposed by the Government when the Fair Funding Review was last debated.

I welcome the ambitions of the 5 Missions, but like the ‘levelling up’ agenda, the only hope for them to succeed is the proper funding of local government, particularly in the most deprived areas that have suffered the biggest cuts.

Read the full article here.