Residents across Yorkshire are going to have a similar tale to tell, because every council faces the same predicament – not enough money to do everything expected of them and little choice but to impose the maximum permitted increase in council tax in order to raise funds.
And while I’m no keener than anyone else on forking out for higher bills, I don’t for a moment blame my council because that is not where the fault lies. It isn’t profligate, but largely sensible and well-run, just like a majority of local authorities.
No, the blame lies with the Government for perpetuating what is now a long and dishonourable tradition of hitting councils with a ruinous one-two. The first slap across the face is starving them of money. The follow-up backhand is dumping responsibility for the spiralling cost of social care on them. Slowly but surely, this two-pronged assault is driving councils towards insolvency because of the relentlessly widening gap between their income and what they need to spend.
Last year, several authorities – thankfully not in our county – warned they were on the brink of not being able to meet their statutory obligations. This year, there will be more.
I’d like to ask our Prime Minister how he squares this with his stated intention of levelling up the economy. How is it possible to have an economy that gives equal opportunity for every area of the country to prosper if councils are facing financial ruin?
That isn’t a picture of a thriving economy, but of a system of public services slowly collapsing. Over the past decade, there has been a 40 per cent reduction in Government funding for local authorities and consequent increases in council tax have not prevented swingeing cuts.
Regions like ours, keen to attract investment and exploit new business opportunities, are hampered from doing so if there is a dearth of good services.
There is a disparity between rhetoric and reality that the Government is choosing to ignore. And a key component of the crisis gripping local government is the burden of providing social care, which consumes an ever-growing proportion of its funds.
So far, there is no sign of the Government getting to grips with the crisis engulfing the system of caring for the elderly and vulnerable. Boris Johnson came to the leadership of his party and subsequently the country with the claim that he was going to fix social care, and had a plan for doing so. Well, where is it, Prime Minister?
Responsibility for care should never have been dumped on councils in the first place. It isn’t a local issue, like the emptying of bins and repairing of potholes, but a national matter that should be treated as a strategic priority in the same way as the NHS or benefits system.
If current trends continue, there will be one million people with dementia by the not-too-distant date of 2025. Yet over the past decade, there has been a £6bn reduction in social care budgets.
Unsurprisingly, over that same period the number of elderly patients stuck in hospital beds because there is nowhere for them to be looked after has risen by 50 per cent. That’s bad enough, but matters are potentially worse for us here in the North because of what is effectively a poverty trap that skews the burden of care more heavily onto local authorities.
In less affluent areas, of which we have many, lower rates of savings mean that fewer people can fund their own care, which results in councils having to pick up the bill sooner than their counterparts in wealthier parts of the country.
This is one of the most disgraceful aspects of the Government’s failings on social care – that the areas which can least afford it are faced with spending a higher proportion of their income on providing it.
This iniquity has to end, and that requires the Government to start treating care as the national issue it is instead of abdicating responsibility.
But it also needs to adopt a new and realistic attitude towards councils, which are currently saddled with the impossible task of providing services with ever-shrinking budgets. If Mr Johnson is serious about levelling up the economy, local government has to be given a fair deal.