When Rishi Sunak stands in front of the Commons for the spending review next week, the chancellor will no doubt serve up “build back better” buzzwords and promises of “levelling up”. Meanwhile you can expect him to be silent about the biggest funding crisis facing this country – and with it, the families going without crucial local services.
Think of local politics and it likely conjures up a dull picture of bin collections and road works (perhaps with the exception of Jackie Weaver and the exploits of the Handforth parish council). But local councils help form the fabric of day-to-day life: the library in your neighbourhood, the special needs teaching assistant in the local primary school, the carer who drops by to help your nan. The Conservatives have taken an axe to such services in recent years, and with a remarkable lack of pushback.
Over the last decade, councils have faced funding cuts from central government of nearly 50%, all while demand and costs have grown. Analysis by the Local Government Association ahead of the spending review shows councils in England will face extra cost pressures of almost £8bn by 2024/25 just to keep their services running at today’s already diminished level. To make matters worse, these estimates only account for “new pressures” on councils, “it does not include the very real pressures that councils are facing here and now, such as paying care workers a fair wage or investing in the early intervention services which help families and young people falling into crisis”.
What was once a functioning state is now a patchwork of broken services. Almost 800 libraries have closed their doors since 2010, as have more than 900 youth centres. Schools have been forced to cut help for pupils with special educational needs, while financially ravaged family support services send more vulnerable children into care. The fate of social care – often the biggest budget pressure for councils – is all too well known, with 1.5 million older and disabled people suffering without support. Boris Johnson’s recent plan for the sector gave no reprieve for cash-strapped councils, instead expecting council tax and the social care precept to carry the burden. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies this month shows the gaping holes in that plan: the government’s social care policies will cost £5bn a year long-term – almost three times the funding that has been allocated over the next three years.
Much of the media has been eerily quiet on all this: a disabled child left without a school place due to budget cuts rarely makes widespread headline news. The Labour party, for its part, has created no real narrative around the crisis, sporadically waving its arms critically at the social care predicament or the closure of children’s centres, but making little attempt to connect the dots to the cause of it all. The public, unsurprisingly, are left in the dark, often blaming progressive parties in local government for cuts that have been forced on them from Westminster.
Two of the defining elements of British politics in recent years are the vast cuts to public services and the erosion of public trust in the political class. These may appear separate concerns, but they are inexorably linked. As austerity edicts are handed down from London, many of which cause great harm, it is no wonder communities across the country feel adrift. A boarded-up town centre is a clear visual sign that those in power don’t care about you or where you live.
Far from getting a reprieve with some investment in the upcoming budget, there is speculation that local government will be hit with more reductions in funding, as Sunak prepares to pull £2bn from already neglected departments. Both he and Johnson appear content with playing pork barrel politics, rewarding their new “red wall” voters with roads and other infrastructure, all with an eye on the next election – and leaving the rest to rot.
It does not take an economist to work out this is not only unethical, but counterproductive: just as every pound invested in council-run services will relieve pressure from other budgets like the NHS and social security, every pound cut will pile on the misery and expense.
At a time when fuel shortages and empty supermarket shelves are miraculously branded by the right as some sort of grandopportunity for the nation, the public’s acceptance of barren conditions seems unassailably high. And yet the electorate always has a limit to what they are willing to put up with, not least when they are paying the highest taxes since the second world war and getting less and less in return. Broken playgrounds for your kids have a habit of undermining even the most brazen politician’s rhetoric.
The Conservatives may have little idea what “levelling up” really means, but a meaningful agenda would make it about power, resources and fairness. True levelling up would mean that Newcastle city council, having been forced to cut its own parks budget by 97% thanks to central government, should now get the resources to boost its green spaces. It would mean more areas being empowered to do a Preston-style transformation, where change is instigated by communities and local politicians. It would mean affluent Richmondshire in North Yorkshire would never get cash intended for deprived areas, just because their MP happens to be the chancellor.
Funding all areas of the country – not for political gain, but simply because they need it – may be an unfashionable idea in Whitehall, but nonetheless, it is one that the Tories should be considering. Johnson’s vague assertions that he will somehow make Britain dramatically better disintegrates against the reality of a country that cannot even provide basic services for its citizens. That it is Johnson’s own party that is responsible for this state of affairs is the ongoing irony of British politics. The Conservatives have perfected playing both arsonist and firefighter in more than a decade in power, decimating local communities and then claiming to be their only saviour.
Johnson’s shtick that he is the go-getter clearing up the mess of “the other guys” may eventually fall flat given the other guys are his own party. In the meantime, disabled people go without help to wash and deprived children can’t play outside; vital services are lost everywhere. The question, surely, is just how much longer the prime minister can get away with it.
Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist and author of Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People – now out on audiobook