Andrew Carter: Help Yorkshire cities right the unfairness of austerity

Andrew Carter is chief executive of the Centre for Cities think-tank.
Andrew Carter is chief executive of the Centre for Cities think-tank.
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BEFORE the Brexit referendum, it is easy to forget that the biggest political issue of our age was austerity – why we embarked upon it, where the cuts fell, on whom they fell. The coalition Government’s decisions were emotionally charged and fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between citizen and state.

Cities Outlook 2019 shows that cities in Yorkshire have been hit disproportionately hard by a decade of falling local authority budgets. Three of the top five cities to suffer the most cut in Britain are in Yorkshire, and Barnsley claims the dubious title of being at the top of the list.

Barnsley has suffered a disproportionate amount of council cuts according to the Centre for Cities think-tank.

Barnsley has suffered a disproportionate amount of council cuts according to the Centre for Cities think-tank.

Yorkshire’s cities have all shouldered more than their fair share of austerity and now, as the Prime Minister has heralded the end of the policy, it is time to fund them more fairly.

Many of Yorkshire’s less economically prosperous cities have proved less able to fill the funding hole left by a cut to central government grant from alternative sources. Compare Barnsley’s situation to York, which has been able to partly make up for the loss of government grant by increasing charges to its comparatively wealthier residents. Because of this, it has managed to shield public services in the city from the worst of local government austerity.

How can we help Yorkshire’s cities? All of them would benefit from more money to begin to reverse a decade of falling spending on vital public services such as libraries, street cleaning and economic development. However, relieving the strains of austerity is not just a question of money; it is also a question of power and, more importantly, who holds the power.

Yorkshire’s city leaders would have been better placed at responding to austerity in their areas if they had the fiscal tools and flexibility to take important decisions. Take council charges as an example of this: Currently councils are only allowed to spend money raised in one area of public services on the same area, so parking charges can only be spent on transport improvements.

During a period of austerity, it does not make sense to spend a pot of money from parking charges on potentially unnecessary transport improvements while libraries are closing across a city. Instead it would be prudent, and cost-free, for the Chancellor to abolish this rule and give city leaders the power to spend money raised in their cities how they see fit. After all, they are best placed to know where the need lies.

A second, almost cost-free, measure would be to enable cities to set multi-year budgets. Currently they are prevented from doing this and can only set 12-month rolling plans. This is destabilising prevents them from undertaking meaningful long-term planning. Giving Yorkshire’s cities the freedom to set three or four-year budgets that the Government adheres to would be a major step forward.

A third area that needs urgent attention is the funding of social care. We already know that this is a major issue for national policy-makers but, as the 2017 election showed, tackling it is not straightforward. What is clear is the current system cannot endure for much longer.

Cities Outlook 2019 draws attention to the demands that it is increasingly making on cities. Ten years ago ,just four out of 62 British cities spent the majority of their budget on social care. Now half of them do. Closer to home, Barnsley now spends more than 60 per cent of its annual budget on social care, the largest share of all cities. Consequently, the immediate and pressing demands of social care are drawing more spending away from other important areas such as housing, transport and economic development.

But Cities Outlook 2019 highlights something starker beyond the figures. 
It’s about the value that we place on our cities in our national life – and this goes further than highlighting that austerity has been unfair to cities and people living in them.

Cities are important not just because they are where the majority of people choose to live, but because they are where the national economy happens. We need well-run, vibrant cities with good services and the right set of powers and resources to help them all, in Yorkshire and across the country, achieve their great potential. Austerity has dealt with them unfairly and – whatever happens with Brexit – this must be the year when the Government puts that right.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of Centre for Cities. Its annual Cities Outlook 2019 is published today.