In an unprecedented economic crisis, local government services and their users need support
There will be no shortage of things for councillors, senior officers and government ministers to discuss at the Local Government Association’s first in-person annual conference since 2019, which starts in Harrogate today.
COVID-19 has left a lasting impact on the health and wellbeing of the nation and many of our local services, while the invasion of Ukraine has seen councils step up again to provide support for those fleeing the war.
All of this comes amid the backdrop of the national and local response to the cost-of-living pressures which are presenting an urgent challenge to our communities.
The rising costs of fuel, food and other essentials is leaving the most vulnerable in society at risk of tipping over a cliff-edge. Some households across the country face the very real possibility of becoming homeless, having to choose between heating or eating, and not being able to get about and receive support.
Councils will continue to do what they can to protect those on the lowest incomes against higher costs for food, transport and other essentials and target help to those facing the most complex challenges.
Extra government support to mitigate the impact of rising energy bills and funding for those on the lowest incomes, who are disproportionately affected by price rises, will help ease the pressure on household budgets this year.
But we are clear that these measures must be accompanied by a longer-term solution to addressing wider cost of living pressures, which are not going to end any time soon, and reducing the need for further emergency support. The last minute, short-term nature of much of the funding government has provided to support people in financial hardship has made it harder for councils to target support as efficiently and effectively as they would like.
It would be wrong to see this as another one-off crisis. Both the war in Ukraine and the growing climate crisis have made future economic shocks, and food and fuel shortages, increasingly likely.
Many households have uncertain and unpredictable income and outgoings and little or no financial reserves to manage changes in circumstances. This leaves them highly vulnerable to these economic and financial shocks.
It is vital that we support people now, but it is also clear that many households are likely to be economically vulnerable for some time to come. Going forward, councils want to work with government on an effective long-term solution to preventing poverty and disadvantage that moves away from providing crisis support and large-scale, emergency interventions, towards improving life chances and building resilience.
Rising energy prices and spiralling inflation have also left councils facing a perfect storm from demand for services continuing to rise just as the price of providing them is also escalating dramatically.
Our new analysis published today shows that inflation, energy costs and projected increases to the National Living Wage will add £2.4 billion in extra cost pressures onto council budgets this year alone.
This is forcing councils to rip up financial plans set just three months ago with the potential of funding cuts to local services - such as collecting bins, filling potholes, care for older and disabled people, early intervention, support for low-income households and homelessness prevention.
The impact on our local services could be disastrous.
It is vital that the Government ensure that councils have the resources they need to meet these unpredicted costs and protect the services that are helping communities recover from the pandemic and residents cope through the cost-of-living crisis.
- Cllr James Jamieson is Chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents more than 350 councils across England and Wales.
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