Colleagues and I have worked hard to demonstrate that the shortage of funds overall has led to significant reductions in some services, including roads.
It has been an exciting week, supporting and listening to members at different kinds of councillor events in London, Exeter, Truro and the Scilly Isles. Thank you for the warm welcomes. Councillors on the Isles of Scilly do a remarkable job, managing a wholly Independent-run unitary authority, including control of five fire stations, an airport, water and fisheries.
Wherever you are, don’t forget we will come and support you. Just gather a dozen councillors or would-be councillors together, under the “Be a Councillor” campaign, and organise through the Independent Group Office. This next year is really important for us, with most members up for election. Our residents deserve nothing less than the best, and that means members of our group, listening, engaged and working hard locally.
What does the budget mean for us, our councils and our future?
Our efforts at the LGA were again significant, consistent and co-ordinated. In response, there is some welcome money and powers for councils. This is against the backdrop of a £7.8 billion further shortfall by 2025. These sums are very welcome, but they do not touch the sides of the cuts we have already faced, nor the increasing pressure we currently see. Whether it is called “austerity” or “financial responsibility”, or any other name, we can be under no illusion about the Government’s direction. Despite brave talk, the Government forecast of growth is small, and our share smaller still, doubly overshadowed both by inflation and by the demographic pressures of more people, living longer with more needs.
The unexpected extra in the Chancellor’s box this year, has not been used to reduce the deficit, but has been handed out instead. The situation remains dire, and continuing to blame the EU and now Brexit for our ills may be a convenient scapegoat for the Government.
Adult social care
There was very good news in that adult social care got £650 million more, over two years, on top of the £240 million for 2018/19. This includes some for Children’s Services in 2019/20, but limited to 20 local authorities. This is against a backdrop of need which we have calculated to be around £3.56 billion by 2025. We continue to make the case strongly for a long term funding solution for adult social care. A further £55 million for adaptations in homes where people are on low incomes and disabled. The money for a new crisis service for mental health was not new, but carved out of the £20.5 billion NHS birthday present, previously announced. Public Health, which drives prevention of health needs, has seen significant cuts since it was handed to councils and we wait to hear the outcome of our lobbying in the 2019 Spending Review.
While many schools are struggling to make ends meet, we have a one-off gift for school’s “nice to have” equipment, granted at £400 million, so worth engaging with your local schools on this. There is also £200 million for a Youth Endowment Fund in England and Wales to help steer 10 to 14-year-olds away from crime. Another one for our councillors to be at the heart of is the “UK Festival Of Innovation and Creativity”, kicked off with a £120 million fund. Could these be very useful to you locally?
Colleagues and I have worked hard to demonstrate that the shortage of funds overall has led to significant reductions in some services, including roads. Perhaps responding to my “Vote Conservative, get potholes” experience, the Chancellor has responded once more with another pothole fund of £420 million; welcome towards a backlog of repairs recently estimated at many millions. The Government says it will in future, after 2020, allocate the equivalent of the English Vehicle Excise Duty to roads, committing a further £28.8 billion over five years to 2025. A further £150 million is towards projects to improve roundabouts, and you may want to put some forward from your area. Other specific area-plans are outlined.
There was more support for people going onto Universal credit and the threshold is raised to enable £1,000 more to be earned without penalty. The Government accepted the Low Pay Commission’s recommendations to increase the National Living Wage to £8.21/hour from April 2019. There is a welcome reduction on the lower tax threshold. People on bigger salaries gain the most as the upper 40 per cent tax threshold is also reduced.
I noticed the Green Party was not impressed: Whilst we are under dire warnings of the planet losing its natural controls creating dangerous instability, the Government continues to support fracking, reduces subsidies on renewables and plans to plant some trees. The relentless drive to build more houses continues with a consultation to allow commercial demolition for housing, under permitted development. Now becoming available is £8.5 million for 500 parishes to permission land for houses sold at a discount. Could this be a big help for you?
I attended training for councillors and field experts this week, on the new regulations for Great Crested Newt yesterday, an English Nature initiative, funded from our budget at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Developers in much, but not all of the country, will be able to pay a sum into a pot for pond habitat creation elsewhere and build on their local pond. We will have to see how to make this work.
There is one big improvement in this budget in local powers for our councils. We currently have no limit on venture capital to build what we like, so long as it is not council housing, the very thing we need. The Housing Revenue Account (HRA) cap was removed on 29 October. It is accompanied by more money for infrastructure, making that fund now £5.5 billion. Our members continually raise the “right to buy” as a serious problem, making most council house building unaffordable. We continue calls for councils to be allowed to choose where to allow the “right to buy”, to set the discount rate and to retain all of the funds.
Our group in particular has called for a fairer digital business tax. From 2020, 2 per cent will be sought from certain big businesses. We shall see if this helps our competing high streets. There is no news on whether health premises will be exempt from business rates. A third of businesses will be taken out of business rates as the threshold is raised, and councils will be compensated at the outset. We called for 100 per cent of the business rates to be retained by councils. So far it is set at 75 per cent, with the current exception of the 100 per cent retaining pilots authorities, for now.
Hot off the press!
EU nationals standing in May
As you know, we have lobbied hard to get an answer about EU nationals being able to stand at the next election and keep their seat for the period of office. The LGA finally submitted a formal question to Cabinet to get a clear response. The answer arrived this week – yes. We have copied the transcript below.
The Cabinet Office has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (175803):
Question: To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office, whether EU citizens will be eligible to (a) stand as candidates and (b) vote in local government elections in England and Wales in 2019 in the event that the UK leaves the EU (i) with and (ii) without a deal. (175803)
Tabled on: 8 October 2018
Answer: Chloe Smith:
The issue of electoral voting rights is part of the wider issue of the rights of EU citizens and UK expats that need to be considered during the Brexit preparations. The rights of both sides should be taken together. The UK pushed hard in negotiations for reciprocal voting rights for EU citizens in the UK, and UK nationals in the EU, but they will not form part of the Withdrawal Agreement. The Government has made clear that we will seek to discuss this issue bilaterally with individual Member States with a view to protecting the rights of UK nationals resident in those Member States, where they will not otherwise continue.
We do not anticipate any changes to the current UK primary legislative framework for candidacy and voting rights being made before the May 2019 English and Northern Ireland local elections. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are responsible for their own franchises.
To provide certainty to prospective candidates, it will be the policy intent of the UK Government that candidates who are validly nominated and elected at or before the May 2019 local elections in England and Northern Ireland should be able to serve that term of office in full, notwithstanding any wider changes to voting and candidacy rights in the future.
The answer was submitted on 1 November 2018 at 11:12.
New unitary in Buckinghamshire – with no directly elected Mayor!
This week the Secretary of State announced a brand new, single unitary council for Buckinghamshire, from 1 April 2020 from the five councils. The four district elections may get delayed and three member wards may be introduced.
Councillor Marianne Overton MBE
Leader of the Independent Group
Vice Chair of the Local Government Association