Britain’s real democratic crisis is the disconnect caused by cuts to local services and facilities
Local government has suffered the biggest cuts of any part of the public sector over the last decade, writes Clive Betts MP
Our democracy is close to breaking point. No, I’m not talking about the Brexit shambles over the last three years which has trashed the UK’s reputation and made us a laughing stock throughout the world. I’m not referring to the outrageous proposals to prorogue parliament, which No 10 statements had persistently denied until the truth was revealed in the Scottish courts.
I’m not even highlighting the little-publicised refusal by a series of secretaries of state to appear before select committees this month. It’s clearly a coordinated action, but we are yet to learn whether it’s a new government policy to avoid scrutiny across the board, or to provide cover for Dominic Cummings’ contempt of Parliament in his refusal to attend the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee.
It’s none of these things.
What I’m talking about is the dangerous democratic disconnect that has been building over the last decade in our local democracy.
The old challenge of “no taxation without representation” has been replaced by “we’ve got representation, we’ve paid lots of taxes and we’ve got no bloody services to show for it”.
At a local level, people count on a range of collective services. We all need highways with drains and street lights to be constructed and maintained. We rely on trading standards to mitigate the impact of con merchants, and public health services to tackle takeaways with little regard for food hygiene standards.
Historically, people expected that, as well as education, adult and child social care, and emergency services, their communities would have parks, sports facilities, community centres, libraries, theatres and museums, youth services, bus services and grants for a whole range of community groups such as residents’ associations, luncheon clubs and advice centres.
But local government has suffered the biggest cuts of any part of the public sector over the last decade. Now, the largest proportion of council expenditure is going on really important care services; but these are services that most people do not, and are unlikely to, use. Meanwhile, the services and facilities that local taxpayers treasure have been decimated.
The government effectively controls the totality of spending of each and every council in the country. The government sets the business rates (national non-domestic rate or NNDR). Through the capping regime – and nearly every council is at its capped level – the government effectively sets the council tax. Government funding for councils has nearly halved since 2010 and, under the current plans, is destined to disappear altogether.
Examine the chancellor’s recent Spending Review announcements. All sorts of claims were made about this providing the basis of the best local government settlement in a decade. But the reality is that the vast majority of the claimed “additional spending” is to be financed by inflation-busting council taxes, additional local precepts and higher business rates. And the additional spending is to be on adult and children’s social care, but not enough to close the identified gap.
At the very best, the additional expenditure may prevent some but not all of the further service cuts (libraries, Sure Start centres and bus services) that are already planned to meet the financial constraints next year.
And if you are tempted to think that I am presenting a party political, partisan view, forget it now. I’m trying to reflect the unanimous conclusion of the all-party Housing, Communities & Local Government Committee in its ‘Local government finance and the 2019 Spending Review’ report published recently.
There is a massive difference between the services taxpayers expect their councils to provide and the level and range of services that it is possible to deliver under current funding.
If people are continually being asked to pay more for less, and voting can’t significantly change the outcome, then cynicism and frustration will undermine confidence in local democracy.
Clive Betts is Labour MP for Sheffield South East and chair of the Housing, Communities & Local Government Committee