The housing and communities secretary’s parliamentary private secretary has responded to criticism of the government’s approach to council funding by saying now is a “critical time” for local government to influence next year’s comprehensive spending review.
During the Conservative conference a series of the party’s senior local government figures have called on ministers use next year’s review to address the chronic underfunding of councils at a time of rising demand, with warnings that non-statutory services face being stripped back.
Appearing at a fringe event organised by the Local Government Association on Monday before the announcement by health secretary Matt Hancock of an extra £240m emergency funding for social care this year, Mr Brokenshire’s PPS Chris Philp MP heard pleas from delegates for the government to act immediately to protect services.
The leader of the LGA’s Conservative group James Jamieson said he felt “the pain” of councillors in the room and accused ministers of a lack of trust in local government despite its democratic mandate.
Cllr Jamieson, who is leader of Central Bedfordshire Council, called for long-term funding security and an end to both limits on council tax rises and the cap on borrowing for housing.
“Far too often I find that government likes a quango or a civil servant who are unelected and are not democratically accountable. If they don’t do a good job, we get the blame and they get a pay rise,” he said.
Calling for councils to be allowed to borrow against their housing assets to fund the building of new homes, Cllr Jamieson added: “Unfortunately, the Treasury does not seem to understand assets and borrowing, it seems to understand borrowing only.”
Staffordshire CC’s cabinet member for finance Mike Sutherland (Con) made an impassioned plea for immediate action.
He said: “We can’t wait until tomorrow, we need help and we need help today… because the savings we have taken out now put a lot of stress on people working in the organisation.”
Hampshire deputy leader and lead member for children’s services Keith Mans (Con) said the government has a choice to make and warned demand in support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is rising faster than pressures on elderly care.
He added: “The government has got to decide whether we are just an agency for central government.
“[SEND demand] has not been recognised by central government. Until it is, you have got a slow-motion train crash on your hands.”
Mr Philp responded by saying Mr Brokenshire and his colleagues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government “are very aware of the spending pressures that local authorities are now under… following eight years of belt-tightening”.
But he added councils’ spending power had increased in “real terms” over the last two years from £4.4bn to £5.6bn and praised councils in Dorset for agreeing to create two new unitary councils to make efficiencies.
He added: “The period leading up to the spending review next year is a critical time for the sector to make clear to government the needs you have.
“I would suggest talk to your local MP, get them to put your case to the Treasury and as this process unfolds, that is an opportunity to set the framework for the four or five years ahead.”
Discussing the fair funding review, Mr Philp said the ministry’s work had identified that funding for London boroughs and metropolitan areas compared to counties “looks out of line”.
“The fair funding review aims to correct those anomalies that have built up over a number of years,” he added.
At another fringe event earlier on Monday, Westminster City Council leader Nickie Aiken (Con) said the CSR was an “opportunity” but warned it would not be “big, brave and bold” if “nothing really changes”.
She added: “We know what we are doing and there needs to be a lot more trust, more devolution.
“We need to have more flexibility to raise taxes. It is too much centralisation in this country with the way finances are governed.
“Business rates are no longer fit for purpose. Council tax is in dire need of reform.”