Andrew Vine: Harsh realities as councils pay the price of austerity

Council cuts mean home visits like this are having to be scaled back.
Council cuts mean home visits like this are having to be scaled back.

I’D like to take the Government ministers responsible for deciding how much councils are given to spend to meet some friends of mine.

If they did, none of them could ever look the public in the eye again and claim that local authorities are anywhere near adequately funded.

Community care, warns Andrew Vine, continues to be hit by reductions in local council spending determined by the Government.

Community care, warns Andrew Vine, continues to be hit by reductions in local council spending determined by the Government.

The ministers would find a couple in their mid-70s increasingly struggling to care for their severely disabled son, who is in his mid-40s. At a time in their lives when they need more help, budget cuts are instead diminishing what is available to them.

Over the past few years, the day centre he attends has had its hours cut. Residential respite care that gave his parents the chance to rest and recoup what strength they could before returning to their roles as full-time carers has also been cut.

Stuart Carlton: Extra funding urgently needed to let Yorkshire councils do the best for every child

Theirs is a 24-hour job, involving lifting and feeding, frequent showers and changes of clothes and bedding because their son suffers episodes of incontinence. And his parents know that it is gradually wearing them out.

Worse than that, the rate at which it is sapping their strength is accelerating, partly because the physical effort is becoming harder as they get older, and partly because he needs more care with each passing year.

Increasingly, they are tormented by a question they ask themselves constantly. What will happen to him when we can’t cope any more?

Ministerial platitudes about providing adequate funding to councils don’t provide an answer. Nor do rebuttals by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government of the anxieties expressed by councils about the state of their finances.

This one family from West Yorkshire is emblematic of the difficulties faced by countless others not only across our region, but the entire country.

They don’t blame their local council. The staff at their son’s day centre – who care for him with the same tenderness as his parents – were as upset as they were at cuts in hours.

But in the face of a shortage of funds, something had to give and because adult social care is a high-spending area of work it was bound to suffer. And it will suffer all over again in the months to come.

Cuts that continue to shrivel public services are creating a nation of worried people and aggravating the vulnerabilities of those most in need of help.

The damage inflicted on our local authorities over the past nine years in the name of austerity is a national disgrace. The overall reduction in central funding to councils over that period amounts to 40 per cent, and the consequent increases in council tax have not prevented swingeing cuts to services.

The Government has put councils in an impossible position. Just how parlous a state many of them are in was demonstrated by last week’s survey by the Local Government Information Unit, which found that 15 councils are in danger of following Northamptonshire into insolvency.

One in 20 fears that it will not be able to provide the legal minimum level of services. Virtually all are having to dig into their dwindling financial reserves just to meet demand.

Yet the Government turns its face away, issuing a bland and disingenuous statement in which it claims to be giving local authorities an extra £1bn a year.

Tell that to the parents of a disabled adult who are struggling to cope. Or to children in need of help whose services are likely to be cut. Or to drivers whose cars are damaged by potholes that go unrepaired because there isn’t the money.

It’s utter nonsense for the Government to claim that it is providing anything like enough money to councils. Even Conservative-run authorities are critical of it.

And in this instance, it is not the case that the Government is short of money to give to councils. Without a second thought, it blew £800,000 of taxpayers’ money on the lunacy of giving a contract to a ferry company with no ships as part of preparing for a no-deal Brexit.

Even that, though, pales beside the eye-watering amounts being sent abroad in foreign aid – currently £13.4bn a year. No less lunatic than spending on non-existent ferries, some of this is going to India and China, bigger economies than our own and potential rivals for international trade.

There needs to be an urgent rebalancing of priorities in Government thinking. It simply cannot be right to spend billions on what is essentially a public relations exercise in making Britain appear to be a bigger player on the world stage than it is while the vulnerable suffer here at home.

It’s high time the electorate woke up to the damage that has been inflicted on councils and demand that they get a fair deal, because the blame for a decline in public services that were once the envy of the world lies not with town halls – but at Westminster.