Steve Reed, Shadow Minister for Civil Society, shares thoughts on the Government's approach to funding cuts ahead of the Autumn Statement.
It’s a shocking fact that since 2010 the ten poorest communities have suffered cuts seventeen times bigger than the ten wealthiest. No wonder so many areas that feel left behind took the opportunity the EU referendum offered to kick back at politics as usual.
This week’s Autumn Statement will show whether Theresa May’s approach is any less divisive and destructive than David Cameron’s was. Councils have already lost, on average, 40% of their funding, with many poorer councils losing over 60%.
Because a large proportion of what councils spend is determined by central government – they have to fund the burgeoning costs of social care for Britain’s ageing population, for instance – the cuts fall disproportionately on the other services they provide such as libraries, youth services, street cleaning, parks, fighting crime, and much more. Councils also have to use their dwindling budgets to pick up the pieces from other damaging Government policies that have increased homelessness, violence and child poverty. The Government then tries to blame councils for cuts they forced on them.
Clearly the Government’s approach to funding cuts is unfair and damaging. But Labour needs to offer more than just fair funding. We need to show we can run the country better than the Tories whatever level of funding is available. There’s plenty of evidence that it is cheaper for the country as well as better for individuals if problems are prevented rather than managed after they happen. For instance, the single biggest indicator that a young person will grow up to become a criminal is if their father has spent time in prison. We know that providing additional support to these young people and their families can reduce the risks.
Tory cuts have stopped this kind of early intervention. Instead, we wait until the young person commits a crime then deal with the costs of their offending, supporting the victim, putting them through the criminal justice system and potentially locking them up, all at considerable cost. We all live with more social problems and pay vast amounts more to clear up afterwards, rather than stop the problem from happening in the first place.
There’s a strong case for more local decision making about public services and investment. The Government’s approach to devolution is half-hearted and hypocritical. While talking localist they have centralised control over services like housing and schools, and even where services have been localised the purse strings remain tightly controlled by Whitehall.
We need a new principle of devolution by default. All decisions should be devolved as close as is practical to the people affected by them. Decisions about how much social housing to build, whether it should be sold off, whether schools are locally accountable or not and who runs them, should all be taken by local people and their councils, not by Whitehall.
Devolution shouldn’t stop at the town hall. People need more control over the decisions that affect them and the services they use. One of the reasons people feel they lack control is that important decisions are taken about them without them in a way that simply never happens to wealthier people. Speak to many council tenants and they’ll tell you they get a poor repairs service and communal areas in their estate aren’t well maintained. Talk to young people in neighbourhoods with high levels of crime and they’ll tell you no one listens to their views on how to keep young people out of violent gangs. Ask older people if they are happy with their home care service and if they get help at all they’ll often tell you they don’t like being told when to bathe, go to the toilet or what to eat. Just increasing funding on its own doesn’t correct these problems, people need more power as well.
There are alternative ways of running services that put service users in the driving seat so they can create better outcomes and better value for money. That doesn’t mean asking people to run services themselves, but making the professionals who run them accountable to those they serve. Examples include tenant management organisations, personalised care budgets that can be pooled with other users, or youth trusts that give young people a real voice.
People will always prefer to avoid a problem than live with it, so more power in their hands will push towards the kind of early intervention the Tories have undermined. And, given the chance, people will reshape public services around the relationships that sustain them in their family or community. Trusting people isn’t just a democratic instinct, it delivers better public services and better public decision making.
Our country needs fundamental change; funding based on need, a switch to early intervention, devolution by default, and opening up power to give people a bigger say over the decisions that affect them. The Tories have divided Britain and this week’s Autumn Statement will do nothing to correct that. Labour needs to make the case for real change and helping people to really take back control.