THE new Prime Minister has wasted little time in setting out a series of pledges for health, education, and policing alongside a promise to ‘level up’ left-behind regions.
These public service pledges are very welcome. Yet many of us who lead councils felt there was a glaring omission here – the funding pressures facing local authorities has yet to be addressed in this domestic policy blitz.
Whilst it is fair to say that most local councils are facing challenges, England’s county local authorities – including North Yorkshire County Council and East Riding of Yorkshire Council – have been getting a rawer deal than most.
These county authorities are the councils with the largest and fastest growing elderly populations, are facing huge rises in demand for children’s social services and deliver critical services to the largest populations.
They are the most overburdened yet the most underfunded councils. This year, the 36 county areas, encompassing county and district councils, will receive £240 per head from the government on average for local public services, encompassing everything from care services, to pothole repairs, to bin collections. This is in sharp contrast to councils in inner London, who receive £601 per resident and metropolitan borough authorities who receive £449 per head.
Indeed, if the Government was to fund both county authorities up to the national average, it would provide £93m for North Yorkshire and £41m for the East Riding. If the Government was to ‘level up’ all 36 county authorities in England, it would mean a whopping extra £3.2bn a year – illustrating the sheer gap between the support government provides to county and urban councils.
As a result, many county authorities have had to reduce highly-valued services such as libraries, street lights, and roads maintenance to a greater extent than others, whilst implementing charges for some care services.
It is this feeling that we are getting a poor deal that led me, alongside Carl Les (North Yorkshire) and Richard Burton (East Riding), and 30 other county leaders to write to the Prime Minister urging him to deliver fairer funding for the 25 million residents who use county services.
Critics may claim that county areas are relatively wealthy and don’t contain the levels of deprivation of city areas, but this is a misconception. A report on social mobility from the County All-Party Parliamentary Group last year showed that county areas are some of the least socially mobile; containing a host of socio-economic issues.
The methodology used to fund councils has been, by and large, left untouched for well over a decade. Councils in London are not the same areas as they were 15 years ago, and vice-versa for counties who are experiencing huge demographic shifts with the number of over-65s and over-85s requiring complex care rising, yet the allocations have not kept up with this.
Following lobbying from the County Councils Network (CCN), the previous government had undertaken a review of the way councils were financed, dubbed the ‘Fair Funding Review’. This was proceeding well under the then local government minister and Yorkshire MP Rishi Sunak. There was genuine hope that the historical underfunding of counties would be addressed.
However, the changing of the guard at Westminster has cast doubt over whether the review, due to be implemented next year, will be seen through.
We would be willing to accept a short delay in the new system being rolled out due to the extenuating Brexit circumstances – in exchange for a promise to deliver it.
CCN has been leading the calls for emergency funding for all councils next year, including targeted resource to help up with pressures in care services, rising costs of special educational needs, and filling potholes to see us through before a more comprehensive Spending Review.
We have been making a case on behalf of all councils for more money next year; with our research showing that all local authorities face a £5.2bn funding gap next year, even if every council raised their council tax by the maximum allowed.
Alongside this, we need a fairer deal for counties. If Boris Johnson wants to genuinely ‘level up’ England’s left-behind areas, we urge him to give us a cast-iron commitment to the Fair Funding Review. It is time that the 25 million residents in counties were given the same opportunities as those living in the cities and major towns.
David Williams is chairman elect of the County Councils Network. He is the Tory leader of Hertfordshire County Council.