Harriet Harman: Home truths for councils in tough financial times

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SOME people come to Harrogate to relax, unwind, have a bit of pampering and feel good about themselves. Others come to the Local Government Conference. It is an important conference because we care about local government, and it was a delight for me to come back to Yorkshire to make my contribution to it.

We wanted to be in government but that’s not the job we got. The job we did get is, nonetheless, very important, which is to be the Opposition, to scrutinise the Government plans and to hold them to account.

As we embark on the next five years of opposition, we will take a serious look within our own party at our relationship between our party in Parliament and in local government.

In this difficult time for local government, by far the most pressing issue is the challenge of council finances. During a time of a general fall in public spending, tough choices need to be made. But the Government’s choices are having a disproportionate impact on local government.

Local authorities have already undergone many years of falling funding, cut by 40 per cent over the period of the last Parliament, disproportionately hitting more deprived areas.

On top of this, even without any further reductions in next week’s Budget or the Autumn Statement, they are set to face further cuts of £3.3bn in 2016/17.

It’s to their credit, on behalf of people in their areas, that councillors have risen to the challenge so far by looking afresh at what they do and how they do it, including here in Yorkshire.

Local government financing is at a tipping point. These further cuts come at a time when there is a need to be doing more whether it’s safeguarding children at risk from neglect, violence or sexual abuse; whether it’s looking after children in care; whether it’s supporting disabled people or whether it’s caring for the elderly.

On elderly care, three things are together creating a perfect storm. Our population is ageing. There is growing concern about quality of care. And there is less money for it.

Council services are vital for helping keep older people healthy in their own homes and out of hospital – whether it’s a grab rail at home, some home cooked meals or a day centre.

This is not only important for the people who get the care – without these services there would be even greater pressure on the already over-stretched NHS. There are big issues at the other end of the life cycle as well.

Last week’s report by the Family and Childcare Trust, showed that in one quarter of local authorities there is a shortage of places for three and four-year-olds. Early years provision is so important for children to get a good start in life and for parents to be able to work.

There is a demand for more, but central Government cutbacks have already constrained the vital work of children’s centres.

We all know that the public finances need to be brought back into balance, but this shouldn’t be done in such a way that compromises the basic viability of vital council services. You cannot empower local government if you choose to impoverish it. But empowering local government is exactly what needs to be done.

There is widespread agreement that the country is facing the biggest housing crisis in a generation. We are building fewer than half the number of homes we need. People want to be able to own their own home. But the percentage of people who own their own homes is going down, and the age at which people get to buy their own homes has gone up to 33.

This means more and more people continuing to live at home with their parents. The Government are not doing enough to get new homes built.We want people to be able to buy their own homes. We want to see as many people as possible fulfilling that aspiration

But the Government’s proposals on extending the ‘right to buy’ programme to housing associations risk making the housing crisis worse. They plan to force housing associations, which are independent organisations, to sell homes to their tenants with a discount, to be paid for by councils selling off their most valuable homes.

Their promise that every home sold would be replaced is not worth the paper it’s written on bearing in mind that though they made that promise for council house sales. For every 10 sold only one was built. And forcing councils to sell their high value properties would strip them of the ability to manage their own housing stock and lead to some quite bizarre outcomes like councils being forced to sell off new properties before even the first tenant has gone in.

So far the Government has been wholly unconvincing in whether this scheme can be made to work at all. We’ll see what the Government brings forward, but any housing policy must ease – rather than deepen – the housing crisis.

People in Yorkshire, and across the country, can count on us over the next five years to hold the Government to account on these issues.

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