2 July 2019
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown highlights local government funding pressures in Gloucestershire

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown speaks in the Estimates Day debate on the proposed spending allocation for the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government and outlines a range of local government areas that need additional funding in Gloucestershire.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)

I am grateful for the opportunity to catch your eye in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), who is a highly valued member of the Public Accounts Committee, of which I have the honour to be deputy Chair. It is clear from her speech that she is extremely knowledgeable about this area, particularly about education, on which she is the Liberal Democrat spokesman.

I also pay tribute to other Members who have helped to secure this really important debate. The reason it is so important is that local authorities are by far the largest devolved form of government in England. They deliver a range of vital services, such as education, planning and social services. The money devoted to local government, and therefore to the effectiveness of these services, is vital to the people of this country, which is why, for the first time in 27 years in this place, I wanted to speak in an estimates debate, but particularly in this one on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

It is a disaster for the people covered by a local authority area when it runs out of money and centrally appointed commissioners are brought in to oversee the finances, as we have seen in Northamptonshire County Council. We need to look very carefully at the role of section 151 officers, who have issued more than 114 notices of loss of financial control since 2010-11. We particularly need to encourage the Government to be intrusive in their inspection of local audits, because it is possible to spot where a local authority is beginning to get into trouble far sooner than was done with Northamptonshire, thereby possibly avoiding bringing in the local commissioners.

As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, the finances of local government are fairly parlous at the moment—resources fell by 34% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2017-18. Paragraph 12 on page 9 of the National Audit Office report states tellingly that overspending and the use of resources were not fully financially sustainable over the medium term. I encourage my colleagues on the Front Bench to look very carefully at this whole matter.

Local government is now facing a funding gap of £3.1 billion by 2019-20, which is estimated to rise to a staggering £8 billion by 2024-25, according to the NAO. Local government spending is being stretched significantly as we face the demand for services way outstretching available funding. This year, for example, Gloucestershire County Council has had to raise its council tax in every district to make £21 million of savings to deal with the financial pressure. To simply keep up with the county’s demand for services, council tax payers now need to provide nearly £295 million.

Children’s social services are a particular worry in the county and across many education authorities. It is the No. 1 financial pressure on Gloucestershire’s 2019-20 budget, as the authority will spend an additional £16.3 million on the most vulnerable children and young people in the county. Ofsted made a monitoring visit to Gloucestershire’s children’s social services in April—its sixth monitoring visit since our local authority was judged to be inadequate in March 2017. It is promising to see that progress has been made. However, that progress was deemed to be slow, and we cannot continue to fail to provide good enough social services for our most vulnerable children and young people.

Throughout the country, 42% of children’s social services are rated good and we spend some £8.8 billion on them, but 91% of local authorities have overspent in this area and we need to understand why. We had the education debate yesterday, and although there is a record amount of money in education overall—rising from £41 billion in 2017-18 to £43.5 billion in 2019-2020—the problem is with distribution. That is the case for my local authority, and I suspect that some of my colleagues on both sides of the House who are in the f40 group would agree that the distribution of money is critical. For example, an authority such as Hackney is getting £6,500 per secondary place, yet some schools in Gloucestershire are below the fair funding amount of £4,800 per secondary place.

Layla Moran

I apologise for intervening, as I have already spoken for a long time. I am a vice-chair of the f40 group. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the current calls from the f40 are about not just distribution but quantum? The “Together for Education” event that took place across the way in Westminster on the weekend before last called for an extra £2.2 billion a year in the education budget, because the f40 group recognises that we can redistribute all we want but the quantum also needs to rise.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown

I accept what the hon. Lady says. The problem is that it is about not only the amount of money that schools get, but the amount of costs that central Government keep imposing on schools—pensions, the apprenticeship levy or other expenditures. The costs keep going up, so the amount that schools have to spend is squeezed every year.

The Government need to do two things. First, they need to consider the quantum, as the hon. Lady has said. Secondly, when they impose an additional tax or an additional cost on a school, they need to consider very carefully how that school’s budget is being squeezed. We want to give our children the fairest possible start in life, and allocating adequate resources to education is almost the most important thing a Government can do, which is why I feel so strongly about this issue.

I also feel strongly about children’s special needs. The amount that Gloucestershire is spending in this regard is going up and up. I am grateful to the Government for providing an additional £1.35 million this year and next to deal with the problem, but they need to understand the causes of the increased demand in special needs, and education, health and care plans. The Government probably need to ring-fence this budget so that we do not get into the situation that we did this year, whereby Gloucestershire County Council was going to top-slice its general schools budget by up to 0.5% to deal with the problem. It is currently entitled to do so, but that is not fair on schoolchildren in general, which is why the Government need to ring-fence this budget.

Local enterprise partnerships—where local authorities contribute a significant amount of money, certainly some of the expertise and some of the governance—are rather variable, as we discovered from the NAO report. Some work extremely well; some work far less well. Some are governed extremely well; some are governed less well. There is geographical overlap in some, but not in others. If the Government wish to deliver their industrial strategy to the best possible degree, they need to look at the whole matter of LEPs quite carefully.

The fire and rescue service in Gloucestershire is currently run by the county council, but there is considerable pressure from the Home Office to transfer it to the police and crime commissioner. We have already had one inquiry and the proposal was rejected, yet the police and crime commissioner still wishes to overturn the decision. I say to my colleagues on the Front Bench that a considerable amount of resource and effort is being wasted by continually bickering over this matter. The fire and rescue service, I say loud and clear, is well run in Gloucestershire. The county council supports it, as do, I think, most Conservative colleagues—certainly, I support it very strongly. It should remain where it is.

We need to get local government funding functioning properly. This is a really serious problem. The Government wish to move to a new form of funding—the core rate support grant—in local government in 2021. That means that there are vital decisions that they need to make quite quickly. The proposal is that councils should keep three quarters of the revenue, down from 90% originally, but fundamental decisions on how this will work are coming very late in the day. No council should be under financial pressure, because of the tier splits, to move to 75% retention. We need to decide what the distribution system should be. If Westminster Council, for example, keeps 75% of its rate support, it will be awash with money, whereas a council in the north that keeps 75% will be in severe shortage. The councils need to know. As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon says, it is only fair that the funding system for councils both for next year and the year after are made very clear fairly soon.

The other side of the coin is that the Government have a target for building 300,000 more homes each year. Councils will be able to do that only if they are properly incentivised by the council tax system. They need to be able to work out what that system is going to be. As part of the local government finance reorganisation, what will the incentives be for councils that want to expand their council tax base, as with the incentives to expand their business rate base? Again, the Government need to make some decisions on this. They need to tell us whether the new homes bonus will remain, and in what form, to give councils that incentive.

This is a huge field. I think I have cantered over some of the main areas, and others will do the same.