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Liberal Democrats on Kent County Council

The Last Few Years have seen the Deliberate and Systematic Destruction of Local Government

November 21, 2018 8:59 PM

Wera Hobhouse's speech to the County Councils' Network on Tuesday 20th November

Wera Hobhouse is the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath and Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government.

Good afternoon everybody. It is a pleasure to be here with you all at the County Councils' Network Conference.

The 12 months since you last came together in Marlow, have been a mixed bag for local government as a whole. One can argue it has been harsher on the counties than other local authorities. The events in Northamptonshire have been a stark warning to all.

Wera HobhouseThe last few years has seen the deliberate and systematic destruction of local government.

What people see from day to day are the local services delivered by local councils.

These services matter and are a core part of our local democracy and what people experience from government.

Under cover and with the excuse of austerity, this Tory government has deliberately stripped out the ability of communities to shape their local area.

We can now clearly see what happens when central government does not value public services and only believes in strengthening the private sector.

Most services are now being contracted out to private companies and the oversight of these services is deliberately fragmented and complex.

It undermines democratic accountability.

The biggest cuts for local government are still to come, and still to be felt. Councils have emptied their reserves, cut services to the bone and shed a large number of council staff.

The consequence of all this is poor local services.

You are at the sharp end of this. And while we all try to mitigate the effects of these cuts, there is a clear link between the budget for a service and what the service offers. We now see more homeless people on the streets, low quality care for the elderly and limited provision for vulnerable children especially those with mental health problems.

So when central government provides extra money, it is only to avoid meltdown and disaster.

The government demonstrated its priority in the Budget when it raised the 40% tax threshold for high earners from 44,000 to 50,000. Rather than funding public services, it prefers to give money directly to individuals. I believe that that this money should be kept by the state and invested in public services.

There have been what some would call 'wins' for county councils in last month's Autumn Budget, and I should congratulate the CCN for lobbying so hard to achieve this, and the hard won inclusion of Sparsity, as well as Deprivation, in the Fair Funding Review calculations. I am sure we are all very pleased that the HRA cap has finally been lifted but of course this won't help balance the budgets in this room.

The difficult decisions are not going away, and unless there is a fundamental change in government policy, budgets and services will continue to be cut. The severe shortfall in spending for Children's Care and Education is not going away, and there is no sign of the government's Green Paper for Social Care which Norman Lamb particularly has been campaigning on for years.

So this is very much a mixed bag and I'd like to use my time with you today to explore some of those challenges and how we as a sector secure a better future for Counties.

Many of you will know that housing is a passion of mine.

Whilst housing delivery is not a main role for many of you in this room, Counties have a key role to enable homes to be built. Good homes need infrastructure planning, working with district Councils and local social landlords so your role as place shapers is key.

The Liberal Democrats will build 50,000 to 100,000 new social homes for rent every year.

Only by embarking on a large programme to rebuild our social housing stock will we end the housing crisis for all those for whom it is a human crisis. Social homes are the only truly affordable form of rent because the public sector doesn't expect the same return on investment as the private sector.

The key element of a home for social rent is the secure tenancy that it offers. Tenancies in the private sector are short term and insecure, and while the private sector flexibility suits some, it does not suit many of those whose lives would benefit from a stable home rather than just a temporary roof over their head.

Building large numbers of new homes for social rent is a social project. It recognises the role of the state in the wellbeing of - and opportunities for - its citizens to fulfil their potential.

It will play a major part in tackling the hidden homelessness of people who do not appear in official statistics but live in very insecure or unsuitable accommodation.

Rather than subsidising private house builders or private buyers and renters, a Liberal Democrat government will support councils and genuine social housing associations to build social housing. Those of you that are Unitary Authorities, that includes you.

To deliver 50,000 to 100,000 new social homes every year, local authorities will have the first right to purchase public land. This land should be purchased at current use value, not speculative development value. CPO powers will be used where necessary.

I recognise when significant social housing developments are being proposed there will always be the challenge of where they should be located. The ability of Counties to help influence and shape these decisions, as a strategic body, should not be ignored.

More thought must be given to what role County Councils should play in strategic planning matters, and how they can take over powers responsibilities that are currently held by the Secretary of State.

Social care in this country is in crisis. It is a crisis that you are having to deal with day in and day out.

After the Government dragged its feet yet again and delayed its long-awaited green paper on adult social care, it was fantastic to see local government taking action and the LGA publishing its own green paper on social care and holding a public consultation.

And the responses make it clear beyond doubt: doing nothing is no longer an option.

The Liberal Democrats were right at the last general election to call for an immediate 1p rise on Income Tax to raise £6 billion additional revenue, to be ring-fenced for social care and NHS services.

The responses to the LGA Green Paper echoed this, saying that an increase either in national insurance or income tax should be considered.

Local government has a key role to play in the shaping and delivery of social care and public health services. A comprehensive review of the long term sustainability of the health and social care finances and workforce, as the practicalities of greater integration, is overdue.

We all know it is more cost-effective to support people to be able to live at home rather than endure lengthy stays in hospital. We must move away from a fragmented system to an integrated service with more joined-up care. This should happen from the bottom up, so local government will have a key role to play.

To me it is clear that social care responsibility should remain with councils, and that social care must be properly funded.

School budgets up and down the country are stretched to the limit. The number of children in the care of local authorities increased even further over the past year. There is huge demand on schools and councils to provide vital support for children and young people, and Children's Services across this country are on a funding cliff edge.

I was shocked to see the figures announced last week which showed that social workers are starting new cases for over 1000 children every day. Government must provide more than 1 billion pounds of extra money every year to protect children who are at risk of harm.

Children's Services are fast approaching a tipping point and face a funding gap of £3 billion by 2025 just to keep services running at current levels. What we need is significant new and long-term funding.

Therefore I totally support CCN's calls for the Government to tackle this funding crisis. Supporting early intervention to prevent problems before they escalate must be key to the new thinking. Because it is so much better value for money. But it needs a commitment to invest properly in the prevention of problems. It requires long term thinking and planning. I expect your services are spending the whole time firefighting and prioritising the most acute cases requiring immediate action because people are in crisis.

If we want to change this, and look at long term outcomes rather than short term crisis management, we need a government and an electorate that values local government and funds it properly.

How will the Liberal Democrat fund local government?

Liberal Democrats will keep the Revenue Support Grant that distributes resources fairly from richer to poorer areas. We are totally committed to the fair distribution of money across all areas of the UK for the provision of local services. Wherever you live, there should be no postcode lottery.

We will replace business rates with Land Value Taxation, which will help protect our high streets for the long term.

Liberal Democrats will add higher bands to Council Tax so that everybody, including people in high value properties make a fair contribution to the public purse.

There must also be, after 30 years, a revaluation of property values to correctly establish the correct council tax band for every property.

I will touch finally on devolution and democracy.

It is not only local government finance that is being cut to the bone by this government. This government is also taking every opportunity that arises to weaken local democratic accountability. Every structural change in local government proposed in the last few years has been to cut out the democratic layers and to replace them with fewer layers and fewer elected councillors making local decisions.

The agenda is clear - weaken local government, cut its budgets to the bone, remove the checks and balances of local democracy. Pave the way for large private sector providers answering to Whitehall.

It's already happening. But this political agenda happens successfully only by stealth and through ignorance. Liberal Democrats have a different vision for County Councils and for local government as a whole. Properly funded, properly democratic. Taking decisions about local services, delivering them locally and being accountable locally.