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Boarded-up public toilets in Harold Place - an unpopular measure taken by HBC in response to funding cuts.

Boarded-up public toilets in Harold Place – an unpopular measure taken by HBC in response to funding cuts.

Budget disappoints council leaders

There were no gaffes when the chancellor Philip Hammond delivered his budget in late November but nor was there much on offer for hard-pressed councils. Nick Terdre asked local council leaders for their reaction.

Council leaders have expressed disappointment or worse at the lack of measures in the autumn budget to ease pressures on local government after years of swingeing cuts to funding.

In the run-up to the budget, under the banner of Stand Up For East Sussex, council leaders joined forces to make a direct plea to the chancellor for a fairer deal for the county. There was some optimism that Westminster was ready to recognise that it was time to ease back on the austerity policies to which the country has been subject since 2010.

Despite some concessions, such as increased funding for the NHS and a slightly shorter waiting time for claimants moving onto universal credit, there were no substantial measures that will make councils’ work of providing public services any easier.

“My instant reaction is that there’s nothing there to ease the crisis of funding in local government, nor public services generally,” Peter Chowney, leader of Hastings Borough Council, told HOT.  “Not tackling the public sector pay cap means it makes it much harder to recruit staff too, so you have to use expensive agency staff instead (in planning, especially).

“Nothing to ease the housing crisis either – fiddling around with stamp duty and trying to incentivise developers won’t help at all – we just need a lot more affordable homes, both to buy and to rent.  If the government is serious about wanting 300,000 more homes a year, then the way to achieve that is to provide the finance to councils and housing associations to build them.  All the rest of this tinkering at the edges will just produce a few more homes that most people can’t afford anyway.”

Little positive news

In Rother too there was disappointment. “I was surprised that there was very little in the way of positive news for hard-pressed local authorities, although I am sure there will be further announcements by the DCLG [Department for Communities and Local Government] very soon,” Carl Maynard, leader of Rother District Council, said.

Council leaders standing up for East Sussex: Cllr Carl Maynard, right, Cllr Peter Chowney, second from right.

Council leaders standing up for East Sussex ahead of the budget: Cllr Carl Maynard, right, Cllr Peter Chowney, second from right.

“I believe that all parliamentarians need to be made aware of the financial plight of local authorities and in particular I’d draw attention to the social care funding issue which requires a long-term, sustainable solution. We were right to launch the ‘Stand up for East Sussex’ Campaign and we’ll continue to have regular dialogue with our East Sussex MPs .”

But no assessment was available from County Hall. “It is too early to know how the details of the Chancellor’s budget will affect our budget planning,” a spokesperson for East Sussex County Council told HOT.  “We will also have to wait until the local government settlement towards the end of December to get a proper understanding of the situation.”

Mr Chowney however was happy to elaborate on the budget shortcomings, as he saw them. “Still no certainty over future local government funding,” he said. ”When the government’s austerity programme led to cutting the revenue support grant to zero, councils were promised that this would be offset by the local retention of business rates. But that has never transpired, so councils are having to cope with massive cuts in their budgets, and no alternative funding to government grants apart from income we can raise ourselves. So cuts to local services are likely to continue.

“The measures to supposedly increase housebuilding and make homes more affordable are misguided,” he said. “They seem to focus on incentives to housebuilders, which means bigger profits for housebuilders rather than homes people can afford, and tweaks to the planning system.

Greedy developers

“The planning system isn’t the problem – it’s greed by developers that prevents houses being built, as developers battle with planners to cut back out any social gain through housing developments, or just sit on sites where planning permission has already been granted.

“There were no new powers for councils to prevent this ‘land banking’ , which is preventing the development of hundreds of thousands of new homes. But the only way a government can really fix the housing market is to build a lot more affordable homes directly, via councils. But there was no hint of that.”

He also regretted the lack of measures to improve the benefits payment system. “There were some tweaks to Universal Credit, but they didn’t go anywhere near far enough. The six-week wait for the first payment was reduced to five, but this is still far too long. There was also a two-week ‘bridging period’ where housing benefit will continue, but that still leaves claimants with three weeks’ rent to pay and no money to cover it.

“Universal Credit is a good idea in principle, but not where it’s used to punish people for being poor, as it is at present. The waiting period should be scrapped altogether.

“The money for grants for electric car charging points is useful, but is again a tiny step and nowhere near enough.  We need a properly coordinated national network of charging points to make sure they’re available where they’re needed.  Lack of this will mean take-up of electric cars will be slower.

“Overall, this was still an ideological austerity budget, with nothing like the investment in infrastructure, sustainable energy generation and public services that’s needed to get us out of the longest decline in living standards since records began.”

See also East Sussex issues joint call for fairer funding

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Posted 16:00 Wednesday, Dec 6, 2017 In: Politics

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