Such is the complexity of local authority finance that every council, in every year, will find ways of complaining that it has been hard done by.
However, even with that caveat there does appear to be more discontent than usual this year – specifically from MPs representing rural areas.
The Rural Services Network claims:
“The Provisional Local Government Settlement would see rural areas lose nearly a third of their central Government funding over the next four years, with urban areas in line to lose just over a fifth. The divisive proposals, which emerged in early December, are expected to be confirmed next week with the matter expected to go before Parliament on Wednesday.”
Cllr Cecilia Motley, a Conservative councillor in Shropshire who is Chairman of the Network says:
“We plead with Government not to proceed with this deal, which will cripple councils in rural areas. This is a horrible miscalculation. It will make life for hundreds of thousands of people across all areas of rural England totally insufferable. It will hit hardest those most in need of public services. Those in need of care. Those in need of transport. Those in need of support.
“Rural Councils at County, Unitary and District levels all face an impossible task if this goes through. They will be stuck between a rock and a hard place. The efficiency savings have all been made and any easy savings decisions were taken years ago. Rural areas have a lower starting service level. If this settlement remains as currently proposed rural residents and rural businesses face a tsunami of swingeing cuts to essential front line services. There will be no alternative.”
One MP we spoke to said:
“I’m going to vote against it. Osborne, Cameron and Greg Clark must be living on another planet – they’ve got not idea of the costs of providing services in rural areas. The costs of adult social care in particular are spiraling through the roof…”
“Unless Osborne wakes up and smells the coffee he’ll have a rebellion on his hands and the Bill isn’t going to go through.”
“Councillors have done the right thing, and done it well, in saving vast amounts of money in the last few years. But now all the fat is gone, all the meat is gone and government wants to gnaw on the bone. I’m not having my local swimming pools and libraries closed down. They’re crossing the Rubicon.
“I think up to 30 MPs will rebel – which would mean the vote being lost. Serious questions have to be asked about the professionalism and reliability of the Whips’ department.”
Another Conservative MP added:
“The devolution stuff has given us a real opportunity to change things locally, but a lot of councillors are unhappy at the idea of this [settlement] with local elections coming up. I was expecting something to make our lives a bit easier to come out from the whips or the Government but it hasn’t come out.”
Naturally enough the Government refutes the claims.
According to the Department for Communities and Local Government the rural-urban funding gap has been falling year on year and that will continue throughout the Spending Review period.
The DCLG also points to the £15.5 million of Rural Services Delivery Grant paid to the 94 most rural authorities in 2015-16 which will increase to £65 million in 2019/20. The Rural Development Programme for England will spend £3.5 billion from 2014 to 2020. There is also another £780 million of central Government spending for areas where commercial broadband coverage will not reach. A local growth deal has already been agreed with Cornwall and the Government want to see other rural areas coming forward.
My head starts to ache when attempting to adjudicate between the array of different funding streams in determining the truth of claims that one council is unfairly funded relative to another.
What I am quite convinced is nonsense is to suggest that “the efficiency savings have all been made”. Any councillor who really feels that way should stand down and let someone else have a go.
Cllr Motley’s council Shropshire might like to consider the £200,000 they spend a year on taxis for able-bodied children going to mainstream schools. They might consider whether they need to have 22 per cent of their children in care in hugely expensive residential children’s homes rather than with foster carers? The figure is around twice the national average.
Shropshire Council pays £19.7 million a year of interest – on its £329 million debt mountain. The Council owns 3,700 works of art; they have no idea of the total financial value of the collection; and have only “between one to five per cent on display”. The Council also owns a golf course, a theatre and 19 farms.
None of this is to say that Shropshire is an exceptionally profligate council. On the contrary they have carried out a number of innovative reforms to achieve greater value for money, some of which I have written about on this site. The whole point is that the potential for greater efficiency is quite typical.
Naturally MPs will wish to fight their corner. So urban MPs will say that urban areas should get a higher share of the funding. Rural MPs will say that on the contrary rural areas should. But MPs (least of all those calling themselves Conservatives) should not make ludicrous claims that it is “impossible” to find further savings without cutting services.
If the Labour MPs vote with the Tory rebels, then perhaps the Government will be defeated. If so, I wonder if the Labour MPs representing big cities will reflect, after they have finished cheering, on the consequences, should the Government be obliged to revise the funding formula in favour of the countryside.