Whilst there was positive news in the autumn statement for affordable housing, pay to stay and further investment in transport and digital infrastructure, the chancellor remained eerily silent on adult social care.
We’ve been clear about the pressures facing social care. Of the £5.8bn funding gap we’ve estimated local areas will face by the end of the decade, £1.3bn comes from adult social care alone. This doesn’t take into consideration, however, the immediate cash injection of at least £1.3bn needed to stabilise the care market now. The calls for action increased ahead of the autumn statement, with the entire care and health sector, including the NHS, care providers and charities, joining the chorus. Despite the chancellor’s silence, we’re continuing to talk to ministers about the implications for councils, pressing the severity of the situation, as we head towards the local government finance settlement.
The question to ask is why, when the calls for action were so deafening, did the chancellor miss the opportunity to address the problem? We’re all speculating, but let me add two opinions into the mix.
First, we need to build a far greater recognition of why social care is so critical to the future prosperity of our communities. Properly funded care for those who rely on it is the only way people will be able to enjoy dignified, healthy and independent lives, live at home and stay out of hospital. Without social care, we increase the burden on family carers and impact on their own health and future. No one should have to worry about how they will care for loved ones or be cared for themselves.
Secondly, the government has decided to leave revenue budgets for all departments unchanged, except for prisons. Our argument for social care investment was competing with this rigidity towards public expenditure. But that doesn’t mean we give up making the case. We need to push strongly the risks posed by a ‘wait and see’ approach to reductions in critical council services.
The chancellor did address a number of our concerns. On housing, we’re heading in the right direction; the pre-autumn statement announcement that pay to stay will be voluntary was a relief to households across the country. We’re pleased that the government recognised the importance of boosting affordable housebuilding and of investing in infrastructure, linked to housing growth. If the government is to get this right councils must play a leading role. The new housing infrastructure fund and the announcement that councils will not be required next year to make any payments from the forced sale of higher value council homes is a move in the right direction.
It’s pleasing that investment in transport and digital infrastructure made it into the mix. However, the allocation of funding to fix our roads is just a drop in the ocean. As it stands the backlog of repairs will take some 14 years to fix. Whilst the significant new investment in 5G technology has the potential to make Britain a global leader in mobile digital connectivity, many outside our larger cities struggle to access 4G, 3G or any G technology. We’ve got to make sure our rural and regional areas are not left behind.
As the chancellor said, the financial future of the country is uncertain. The EU referendum result means we are in unchartered waters. However, there are opportunities that must be grasped. The next few years are going to be challenging and as our chairman and political group leaders have said, conversations must begin about how funds we contribute to the EU will be allocated post-exit, along with the design of a new UK social and economic aid program. This is not to ignore the very real pressures that we are under. We need financial certainty. With the majority of local areas signed up to the four-year finance settlement, we’re calling on the government to publish the local government finance settlement as soon as possible so that local areas have more time to plan.
I have valued the wise counsel of many chief executive colleagues who have been reassuring us that we’re on the right track with the things we are pressing. We all recognise that whilst the government has set out its stall regarding growth and prosperity, councils are the lifeline to our communities. There is still much to do. Our senior Local Government Association politicians are working tirelessly for member councils, and we continue to have wide support as a result of our work beyond local government.
We’ll be continuing to take up with government the issues that matter to you and highlight the important work you all do to improve the wellbeing of everybody in our communities.
Mark Lloyd, chief executive, Local Government Association