Ministers are not playing fair by our most disadvantaged communities
The queues for the local food banks stretch down the street, writes Rushanara Ali MP. | PA Images
Already weakened and ill-equipped, local services have faced the costs of Covid. Far from ‘levelling up’, the government is pushing the most disadvantaged communities further into the ground.
Our local authorities have been on the front-line, shoulder to shoulder with the NHS, throughout the pandemic. Local councils provide a huge range of services that have the felt impact of the virus, from libraries, museums, parks and schools, special educational needs, to rubbish collection, roads and public health. Adult social care in particular has faced the full force of this terrible disease.
Councils have been responsible for some of the most important aspects of fighting Covid-19. At the same time, as we went into lockdown and our street markets, town squares and high streets became deserted, revenues from licences, parking and business rates dwindled. Rising demand and falling revenue – a recipe for disaster.
Given the centrality of the nation’s town halls and county halls, you might assume they have been getting the funding they need to deal with the pandemic and the social and economic costs. The figures are stark. For a start local government has been squeezed over the past ten years. Our councils have lost 60p in the pound since 2010 and the start of austerity.
Already weakened and ill-equipped, local services have faced the costs of Covid. The Local Government Association (LGA) puts the bill at £10.9 billion. This is more than treble the extra funding provided by Ministers, despite their often repeated boasts of generosity.
Our system of social care was broken before the pandemic – it is in desperate need of structural reform now
My own local authority Tower Hamlets has had to make £200 million in savings since 2010, and now has to cut a further £30 million by 2024. Yet at the same time, we have a growing population, more people over 65, and more people than ever in need. Tower Hamlets already has over half its children in poverty – the most of any local authority. The queues for the local food banks stretch down the street. Just as we need extra resources, we are not getting them.
This has consequences in the real world. Take schools. According to the House of Commons Library, spending on education as a proportion of GDP has fallen from 5.69% to 4.27% in the past seven years. Now, schools have had unexpected extra costs such as hand washing stations, extra deep cleaning, teachers on sick leave or isolating, more IT for remote learning, and other costs. For one school in my area, Bonner Primary, the cost has been over £97,000 this year so far.
And despite the best efforts of teachers and parents, it is pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds that suffer the most. Kids without computers, kids without bedrooms or a quiet place to work from home, kids with complex learning needs who need structure, stability and routine.
Take adult social care. Spending per head on social care is less than in 2010 according to the TUC. Councils are coping with growing populations, aging populations, and greater demands, as well as the terrible consequences of Covid. Our system of social care was broken before the pandemic – it is in desperate need of structural reform now.
Look at almost any area of our public services, from libraries to museums, from youth services to leisure centres, and you can see services that are stretched to breaking point. Far from ‘levelling up’ the most disadvantaged communities like mine, the Government is pushing them further into the ground.
Ministers stand accused of an even greater fault than mere underfunding, though. There is also the charge of favouritism. For example, the National Audit Office (NAO) found that before the 2019 General Election, Ministers diverted most of the £3.6 bilion ‘towns fund’ to parliamentary seats the Conservatives hoped to win. This flew in the face of advice from their officials on which areas had the greatest need.
Over the summer, new evidence emerged that the areas hardest hit by Covid-19, mostly Labour-run towns and cities, had lost out in emergency funding to areas with Conservative councils like Windsor, Wokingham and Surrey. Such favouritism is literally costing lives.
We are only just learning the true extent of the PPE procurement scandal, with multi-million pound contracts awarded to friends, contacts and supporters of Conservative ministers, without due diligence or competitive tendering. It has created a feeding frenzy for friends of Tories, a bonanza for buddies of ministers.
The British people have paid a huge price for Covid-19. Tens of thousands have died, thousands are grieving, thousands more have been unwell, or lost their jobs, homes and businesses. The queues for food banks are getting longer, the unemployment count is rising. We should all be able to rely on a British Government, of whichever hue, that plays fair and by the rules.
The fact is, as far as Ministers are concerned, we are not all in it together.
Rushanara Ali is the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.