Finance and strikes
This week more councils, including Calderdale, East Sussex, Hastings, Salford City, Shropshire and Plymouth, have announced that they will be increasing council tax by the maximum allowed (4.99%), without a referendum or special allowance by central government.
As the health, transport and teachers’ strikes continue, a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said that the government will need to increase taxes or reduce spending to end public sector pay disputes and avoid further strike action. The IFS’s pre-budget report says the government is on track to borrow around £31bn less than forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility in 2022/23, but it warned that the short-term borrowing boost would not allow for permanent spending increases, such as increasing public sector pay to match predicted inflation.
The IFS said the Chancellor should resist calls to use the savings to fund tax cuts or spending rises in this month’s budget, as public finances would suffer from a slowing economy until 2027.
Local government officers have not, as yet, been party to the public sector strikes. Next year’s pay offer to council workers has been announced this week and it varies from 9.42%, for the lowest paid council workers, to 3.88% for higher paid local government officials. The offer is currently being considered by the unions.
Coming up: The budget statement is expected on 15 March and the LGIU will produce a briefing on the day. Look out, too, for the results of our annual finance survey next week. Make sure you’re signed up for alerts so you don’t miss a thing.
This LGIU briefing, from last week, looks at how local authorities can regenerate their local economies. And we also shared an article on the 30th anniversary of council tax and what the alternatives may be. Happy Birthday Council Tax?
Devolution, levelling up (and anti-social behaviour?!)
As expected, City of York Council has agreed to progress a devolution deal to unlock government funding of £540m over 30 years. The joint deal with North Yorkshire County Council will see the creation of a mayoral combined authority and an elected mayor.
The Northumberland town of Blyth has been promised just over £20m in Levelling Up funding. The money is designed to transform empty homes, support job training and tackle crime. Northumberland County Council leader, Glen Sanderson, said the money will “secure jobs in the town’s clean energy industry.”
The Ministry of Justice, Department for Education, Home Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are working on a new “anti-social behaviour action plan” aimed at addressing low-level crime such as graffiti and vandalism. The drive comes in response to a report from the Onward centre-right think tank which argued that anti-social behaviour is stalling efforts to level up England’s regions. The government is expected to announce tougher punishments for graffiti, vandalism, and other crimes, measures to require offenders to clean up or repair damage they cause, more activities for young people and improved police response times.
Transport and environment
Following on from the news last week that some outer London boroughs and some county councils are threatening the Greater London Authority (GLA) with legal action over its plans to extend the ultra low emissions zone (ULEZ), the Mayor of London has urged the Prime Minister to match-fund the £110m that the GLA has already spent on a scrappage scheme for Londoners, so that home counties commuters with polluting vehicles can also replace their non-compliant vehicles.
The London mayor has pointed to the fact that Greater Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham and Bradford all received funding from the UK government for their own scrappage schemes but the government has refused to extend the scheme nationally.
Meanwhile, Sheffield City Council’s new clean air zone (CAZ) came into effect this week, with the most polluting commercial vehicles – including taxis, vans, buses, coaches and HGVs – to pay daily charges of between £10 and £50 to enter the CAZ zone, which covers the city centre and inner ring road.
The increase in public bikes and electric scooters for hire on our cities’ streets can be seen as a positive move to get more cars off the road but are they causing problems for pedestrians?
Westminster City Council has announced a crackdown on dockless rental bikes and e-scooters that are often left littering the borough’s streets – warning that it will begin confiscating bikes that are parked dangerously. There is currently no licensing framework for such schemes, and the Department for Transport has said it intends to “introduce one when parliamentary time allows”. At the same time, the National Federation of the Blind has warned that Newcastle City Council’s trial e-scooter rental scheme has seen “dumped” scooters create “dangerous trip hazards” for the visually impaired.
Homelessness, housing and planning
The Department of Levelling Up, Communities and Housing (DLUHC) has published new statistics this week revealing that the number of people sleeping rough in England rose by 26% last year, to 3,069. The increase was the first in six years, with recent falls due, in part, to pandemic-related initiatives. London saw the biggest increase of any region, with a 34% rise, from 640 to 858. Homelessness charity, Crisis, has warned that the government is set to miss its target of ending rough sleeping in England by 2024, saying the “political leadership” needed to meet the commitment “isn’t happening”.
Major infrastructure projects such as new nuclear power plants, transport links or offshore windfarms could be built more quickly in the future after the government, this week, announced new powers to allow the Communities Secretary to hasten planning approval. The move follows Whitehall concerns about a 65% increase between 2012 and 2021 in the time it took for nationally important projects to go through the planning process. The government said the new measures will help boost growth, bolster energy security and help deliver net zero targets. But critics, including the CPRE countryside charity, fear it will take power away from local communities to oppose developments in their areas.
See the latest LGIU briefing on housing and planning here.
Social care and children
British Association of Social Workers (BASW) research shows that children’s social workers are quitting in record numbers. Department for Education data for 2022 shows the number of professionals has fallen for the first time since data collection began in 2017. The figures, which note that a third of local authorities cite staff recruitment and retention as a challenge, show 5,400 social workers departed the profession in 2022, a 9% rise on the previous year and the highest number since 2017. Vacancies are also at a record high of 7,900, a 21% rise on 2021.
This week a report by Simon Bottery, senior fellow at The King’s Fund, has found that demand for social care has hit a new peak, with 1.98m requests for support from elderly or vulnerable people in 2021/22, up from 1.92m the previous year, while the number receiving long-term care fell to 818,000, down 55,000 from 2015/16. At the same time, figures compiled by CSI Market Intelligence show that care home capacity in the UK shrank in 2022 for the first time in three years. The number of beds in the sector fell by 230 over the last 12 months according to the research, which also reveals 247 care homes closed their doors last year, while 123 new businesses opened. It was the lowest number of new entrants to the market since 2015.
Campaigners have welcomed the introduction of new legislation raising the legal age of marriage to 18 in England and Wales, with the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act, which also covers non-legally binding ceremonies, aimed at protecting children from forced marriage.
A recent LGIU briefing on vulnerable young people who are missing out on education and care can be read here.
See the latest LGIU round up on early years and childcare here.
Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants
There have been worrying reports of protests and counter-protests in a number of areas – including the seaside towns of Skegness, Lincolnshire and Newquay, Cornwall – over the Home Office’s practice of housing asylum seekers in hotels. Anti-migrant protests, organised by groups such as the far-right Patriotic Alternative, have sparked counter-protests by groups such as Hope Not Hate.
Medway Council has lost a High Court challenge against the Home Office over a scheme to place unaccompanied asylum-seeking children around the country. The local authority had objected to being part of the, now-compulsory, national transfer scheme where local authorities share responsibility for such children. Judges rejected the council’s argument that it had issues with capacity. Medway Council brought legal action, arguing the policy ignored important factors in deciding whether the scheme would “unduly prejudice” local authorities’ other work. Lord Justice Bean said: “It should only be in circumstances of crisis amounting to a complete breakdown that a local authority should be exempt from participation in the scheme altogether.”
Meanwhile London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has announced funding for up to 600 new homes for Ukrainian and Afghan refugees. He has allocated £126m to the scheme from the government’s £500m Local Authority Housing Fund. The new Refugee Housing Programme (RHP) is aimed at easing the expected pressure on local accommodation schemes as bridging accommodation sites and the initial six-month Homes for Ukraine commitment comes to an end. Mayor Khan said in the long term, the homes delivered through the RHP will be returned to councils and housing associations to become social or affordable rented homes available for Londoners on the housing waiting list or who require temporary accommodation.
Also, the Telegraph reports this week that the government is considering handing councils more money to take migrants out of hotels. Apparently, ministers are keen to disperse migrants from the 200 hotels where 40,000 asylum seekers are currently housed at a cost of £5m a day. A scheme launched last year aims to share responsibility for asylum seekers among a wider range of council areas, by providing local authorities with one-off payments of £250 per person and £3,500 for each new occupied bed space. Government sources say the amounts on offer could now be increased.
The latest LGIU briefing on refugees and asylum seekers can be read here.
The cost of living crisis continues to bite, with reports this week that grocery prices have risen by a record 17.1% year-on-year, with milk, eggs and margarine among the items driving the increase. Research shows that in the four weeks to 19 February, prices increased at the highest rate since records began in 2008. The increase means consumers’ annual bills will be £811 higher, on average.
A feature in the Guardian this week examines the reasons behind the shortage of certain salad vegetables and the resulting increase in prices, reporting that the wholesale price of tomatoes and peppers has quadrupled. The restaurant critic and writer, Jay Raynor argues that, whilst the impact of Brexit and the climate crisis are playing a role in the reduction in supply of such produce (there are no such shortages in France or Spain), the blame also lies with the major supermarkets putting UK food producers out of business in recent years with the increased importation of cheaper produce from abroad.
But we might have, finally, dealt with Brexit! Has Rishi done a deal that overcomes the Northern Ireland protocol? If so, will it get our tomatoes and peppers back? I suspect not!
How do we engage with our residents to keep everyone informed? A new briefing on how local councils and local journalists can work together can be read here.