Finance, the economy and living standards
Revised figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the UK economy performed better than previously estimated in the closing quarter of 2022, growing by 0.1%. This confirms that the economy avoided falling into recession in 2022. However, the UK is set to be one of the world’s worst performing major economies this year, according to a forecast from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF report says the UK economy’s performance in 2023 will be the worst among the G7, predicting that the economy will shrink by 0.3% in 2023 and then grow by 1% next year.
Last week Sky News looked at the impact of years of funding cuts on local authorities, focusing on Nottingham City Council, where cuts have impacted on everything from community services to Nottingham Castle, whose trust went into liquidation last year. The Sky News report notes that the revenue support grant given to councils in England has fallen by almost 90% since 2014.
Analysis carried out by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) and Open Innovations has suggested that councils across the UK could boost their funding by £428m a year if they followed Manchester City Council by introducing a £1-a-night tourist tax. England’s regions, the report found, could bring in from £13.8m a year in the North East to £87.6m in the South East. NPP chief executive, Henri Murison, said a tourism levy “is common sense”, adding: “It’s not fair that the burden of this upkeep or the cost of increased traffic should fall entirely on local residents, nor does it make sense economically.”
Research by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been released showing that sanctioning benefit claimants could leave them taking longer to find paid employment and ending up in worse jobs when they do. First requested in 2018 by the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, the DWP initially pledged to publish the study, but it emerged a year ago that Thérèse Coffey, then the Work and Pensions Secretary, had blocked its release. Its findings echo a series of independent studies showing sanctions are ineffective as a way of getting people into jobs or to work more hours.
A recent LGIU briefing on living standards can be read here.
A recent LGIU briefing, focussed on the detail of the Spring Budget, can be read here.
The potential impact of the new voter ID restrictions on the forthcoming local government elections are continuing to elicit concerns across the political spectrum.
Last week, former Conservative Brexit Secretary, David Davis, told the Mirror that the government’s introduction of mandatory voter ID at the local elections “will undoubtedly reduce the turnout”, but has said he does not expect the government to rethink its plans at this “late stage”. The change, he said appears to be “trying to solve a problem that’s not really there”, adding: “If people turn up and haven’t got an ID with them or they don’t own an ID at all – it will reduce the likelihood of them voting.”
Merseyside council leaders have also warned that the introduction of photo ID requirements at the local elections – with the region’s Merseytravel 60+ bus pass excluded from the list of valid ID – may stop locals from casting their vote. Wirral Council leader, Cllr Janette Williamson, said it is “only in the small print that it says it has to be a national travel pass, not a local one” – excluding some passes issued by Merseytravel, but not others.
Cllr Tom Crone, leader of the Green Party group on Liverpool City Council, says the council is still “being approached by residents who aren’t sure if their ID is valid”, while Cllr John Pugh, leader of Sefton Council’s Liberal Democrat group, says there “appears to be no logic whatsoever in them not being allowable”.
The LGIU briefing on elections issues for local authorities is here and a briefing on the new voter ID laws can be read here. We’ve also provided international insight on how councils are supporting and recruiting poll workers in the face of rising tensions from voter ID to misinformation.
A recent LGIU briefing on young people’s attitudes and views on democracy can be read here.
Lasts month the LGIU launched its series of election support briefings.
Environment, transport and energy
Last week Energy Secretary, Grant Shapps, published the government’s Powering Up Britain strategy, setting out the government’s plans to meet its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. The strategy, which opposition politicians warned was accompanied by no new funding, includes plans to invest £20bn into carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, support for hydrogen fuel projects, a new body, Great British Nuclear, tasked with delivering investment in future plants, and an accelerator programme to drive investment in heat pump technology. The FT notes that the government’s own calculations suggest the plan will deliver just 92% of the emission reductions needed to meet the UK’s 2030 target, rising to 97% by 2037. While the de facto ban on new onshore wind development was not lifted, a consultation on how communities could benefit from the creation of “onshore wind partnerships” with local authorities was announced.
Last week Bob Pragada, head of engineering consultancy Jacobs, said that HS2 needs a major rethink in the wake of revelations that it will blow its budget. He suggested Boris Johnson failed to properly scrutinise data on travelling patterns and demand before he greenlit the controversial train line. Mr Pragada added that now is the time to pause and properly analyse this data before deciding which parts of the project should be prioritised. He suggested the process be flipped on its head, with data driven decision making on how much to spend rather than simply trying to get as much out of the budget as possible.
This week the High Court has allowed a legal challenge launched by Bexley, Bromley, Harrow, Hillingdon and Surrey County councils against London mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to extend the city’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) to proceed on two of five original claimed grounds for appeal, while three grounds were rejected outright. The challenge can move forward in relation to alleged failures to comply with statutory requirements around the expansion’s implementation, and in relation to claims that the mayor failed to consider including non-London residents in a scrappage scheme for older vehicles. A hearing is expected to be held in July.
The government’s devolution proposals appear to be creating political, as well as regional, divides.
Last week a group of East Midlands Conservative MPs, led by Mansfield MP Ben Bradley, wrote to Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove to claim that devolution in England “is being defined by left-leaning politicians that are least capable of capitalising on what it offers”, criticising the Department’s decision to agree “trailblazer” devolution deals with Labour Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, and Conservative West Midlands mayor, Andy Street. The letter claims that Mr Burnham’s “proposals for a workplace parking levy and a ‘clean-air-zone’ are the very opposite of what Red Wall communities need during a cost-of-living-crisis”, and the letter argues it is “vital that the Government immediately empowers other regional authorities of England to lead by example”.
Cornwall Council has abandoned plans to pursue a devolution deal that includes an elected mayor due to local opposition. Of 6,105 responses to a survey, 69% of respondents were against the deal with a mayor. Council leader Linda Taylor said it was with the “greatest regret” she could not recommend a level three deal – the highest level of devolution. She will instead advise pursuing a level two deal, which comes with less government funding.
An LGIU briefing on what the Spring Budget means for devolution will be published next week.
Housing and planning
Housing Secretary Michael Gove has announced that planning laws will be altered by the end of the year to allow local authorities to ban future holiday and short-term lets if their local area has a shortage of affordable housing to rent or buy, and to require second home owners to secure planning permission to let out their property. Mr Gove said he is “determined that we ensure that more people have access to local homes at affordable prices, and that we prioritise families desperate to rent or buy a home of their own close to where they work”, and that while tourism “brings many benefits to our economy”, local people are too often “pushed out of cherished towns, cities and villages by huge numbers of short-term lets”.
Last week a Westminster City Council investigation found that around 90% of homes in a block of flats near Hyde Park were being used for short-term lets – with the block representing almost as many rooms for let as there are rooms in the nearby Ritz Hotel. Council leader, Cllr Adam Hug, said short-term lets “have been widely abused”, adding: “When you have one residential block renting out more rooms than the Ritz every night, you know the system needs to be reformed.” The council has revealed that while the Ritz pays £2.27m in business rates each year, the 118 flats at Forset Court pay a total of just over £40,000 a year in council tax.
A recent LGIU briefing on second homes and holiday lets can be read here.
A recent Global Local briefing on housing shortages can be read here.
Michael Gove has also announced that local authorities will be allowed to keep the proceeds of Right to Buy sales for two years, and will be allowed to buy properties to increase their housing stock as well as build new homes. The government believes the moves, which are expected to boost funding by around £366m, will help boost council housing stocks by more than 4,000 by the next election.
New analysis shows that 55 local authorities have suspended their development plans, which specify how they will meet demand for new homes in their area. After Housing Secretary Michael Gove said that the government would no longer pursue a mandatory target of 300,000 new homes a year, 25 councils scrapped their local plans. Thirty councils had abandoned their plans before the minister made his announcement. Additionally, official data reveals that the number of housing projects granted planning permission in England last year fell to the lowest level since records began in 2006.
Polling conducted by YouGov for the i has found that 74% of people across the country believe that more social housing is needed – including 71% of those who voted Conservative at the last general election – while just 15% do not believe much more social housing is needed. More than four fifths believe it is “difficult” for young people to access suitable housing. The paper notes a 2022 report from the House of Lords Built Environment Committee which found that thanks to a “serious shortage”, many current renters who would previously have lived in affordable social homes now live in “expensive private rented accommodation”, subsidised by housing benefit, whose total cost has now reached £23.4bn a year.
The latest LGIU housing and planning update can be read here.
Children and safeguarding
Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has committed to introducing mandatory reporting rules that will require people working with children, including teachers, social workers and the police, to report signs or suspicions of child sexual abuse or face sanctions, up to and including a jail term. Ms Braverman said that while the government is still considering the full list of recommendations from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, and that it is “essential that we separate our response to the horrors of grooming gangs from wider child sexual abuse and our response to the inquiry”, the inquiry’s call for a mandatory reporting duty “is particularly relevant to eradicating grooming gangs”.
The Prime Minister has followed the Home Secretary’s commitment to introducing mandatory reporting of suspicions of child abuse for safeguarding professionals by announcing the launch of a taskforce, including specialist police and members of the National Crime Agency, to “stamp out” grooming gangs, which the government argues have been shielded by “political correctness” in local councils and the police. The task force will draw upon data on the ethnicity of offenders, which police forces have been required to collect since April last year.
In response, Labour said the package was “hopelessly inadequate, belated and narrow”. Shadow communities minister, Lisa Nandy, acknowledged that there have been “particular issues with Kurdish and Pakistani gangs in some parts of the country”, but added that there were also “huge issues with white men grooming young girls online”. Meanwhile, former chief crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal pointed to a 2020 Home Office report which found that group-based sex offenders are “most commonly white”, with no evidence of any ethnic group being over-represented in child sexual exploitation cases.
Meanwhile, 21 people have been convicted for their parts in the largest ever child sex abuse case investigated by West Midlands Police. The offending against seven children, who were 12 years old or younger, took place over nearly a decade in Walsall and Wolverhampton. Walsall Safeguarding Partnership (WSP) is responsible for safeguarding vulnerable children and adults in the area and is carrying out a review of the case. Several children and young people who were affected by the case are still being supported and cared for by agencies.
See the LGIU briefing on the latest Ofsted annual report here.
Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants
The battles between national and local government on the housing of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants continue.
The Guardian has reported that the government is set to reveal a barge as its first offshore accommodation for asylum seekers. The Bibby Stockholm has been used “all over Europe” to accommodate asylum seekers, including by Dutch authorities to house about 500 people in the early 2000s. Sky News says the Home Office hopes in the coming days to announce a leasing agreement to use the vessel in Portland, Dorset. The Times adds that the plans will cost more than £20,000 per day. A cohort of Dorset Council, residents’ groups, charities, the police and crime commissioner and the local MP are understood to be preparing legal action to stop the plans. They argue the Home Office has failed to consult the community on the scheme, that the location is inappropriate for accommodating migrants and that there is a lack of local facilities to support them.
Portland mayor, Pete Roper, has criticised the government for not consulting local politicians and residents or providing any additional support for the island. He likened it to having a “housing estate plonked on them at a moment’s notice without recognising the need for medical, security and hospitality services”. Cllr Carralyn Parkes added: “There’s no infrastructure on Portland to deal with people who are going to have complicated needs. Some of these asylum seekers have travelled thousands of miles, they are brutalised and will have complex psychological and physical needs. We have one GP surgery with two practices serving the whole island, we don’t have a hospital”. Dorset Council is opposed to the use of the port as the site and MP for the area, Richard Drax, has called for Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, to scrap the idea.
The Telegraph reports that the government is in talks with ports group Peel Ports about housing migrants aboard a vessel on the River Mersey. The company operates ports including the harbour and docks along the Mersey in Liverpool, Wirral and Sefton. Last year, the company provided a berth for a cruise ship accommodating Ukrainian refugees in Glasgow in a deal with the Scottish government. It is not clear whether any deal with Peel Ports would be for a ferry or barge, although it is known that ministers are in negotiations over a ferry that could house up to 2,000 asylum-seekers, with a city or major port the most likely location. A spokesperson for Peel Ports declined to confirm or deny the talks, but said: “What we have learned is that this model can only work with the full engagement and support of the local authority and other relevant stakeholders.”
Two councils have said they did not receive advance notification from the government over plans to house asylum seekers at a site in East Sussex. Immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, announced the proposals to house asylum seekers in three disused military bases, including one in Bexhill. “We know many residents have voiced concerns about the proposals from the Home Office for the Northeye site in Bexhill,” a joint statement released by Rother DC and East Sussex County Council reads. “We too are waiting for full facts about how the proposal to use the site to house people seeking asylum would be implemented”. The statement also said the two authorities were only informed about the plans a few hours before they were announced: “There had been no previous discussions with the Government”.
Meanwhile, all of the migrants who were staying at a hotel in Newquay are being moved out, Cornwall Council said last week. Residents will be moved to alternative accommodation in the South East of England. There were thought to be more than 100 migrants at the seafront hotel in the Cornish resort. A local authority spokesperson said the decision had been made “without reference to the council”. The presence of the migrants prompted protests in February with campaigners both for and against turning out on the town’s streets.
The government has also been forced to put its plan to house hundreds of asylum seekers on a former RAF airbase on hold after Braintree District Council sought an injunction to stop the move. The council argued that RAF Wethersfield, in Essex, is too isolated and a sudden rise in population would strain local services. The High Court has now granted the local authority a full injunction hearing against the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence.
The decision comes as West Lindsey District Council in Lincolnshire is also seeking an injunction over similar plans to house people at RAF Scampton. The council fears the move will jeopardise a £300m regeneration project to turn the site into a heritage, aviation and research centre.
The Home Office is aiming to find accommodation for at least 25,000 migrants from a list of disused crown properties. They range from properties that could accommodate a few dozen asylum seekers to large sites that could house more than 2,000. One of the largest sites on the list, obtained by the Times, is St George’s Barracks in the Rutland village of North Luffenham, which is due for closure in 2026 and could provide accommodation for about 2,200 people.
Health and social care
A new round of Covid-19 booster jabs began last week, with doctors visiting care homes and online bookings opening for the over-75s and those with weakened immune systems. NHS vaccination director Steve Russell commented: “We are learning to live with Covid but it is still really important that those at greatest risk come forward and boost their protection.”
Funding promised for the social care workforce has been halved, the government has confirmed. In a People at the Heart of Care white paper on adult social care reform, published in December 2021, ministers pledged to invest “at least £500m over the next three years to begin to transform the way we support the social care workforce”. However, the Department of Health and Social Care has now said its “call for evidence in partnership with Skills for Care on a new care workforce pathway and funding for hundreds of thousands of training places, including a new Care Certificate qualification”, would be backed by £250m.
A recent LGIU briefing on the role of councils in integrated care systems can be read here:
The latest monthly round-up of health and social care issues can be read here.
Arts and culture
The National Audit Office (NAO) is to look into the Coventry City of Culture Trust’s finances after it went into administration in February. The trust received more than £20.4m from Arts Council England and the government since 2015, but its collapse meant its three-year programme of events, part of its heritage legacy plans, will not go ahead. The organisation received more than £6.5m from a combination of Coventry City Council, the West Midlands Combined Authority and Warwickshire County Council.
The Cultural sector spring round-up will be published on Monday.
Many of us in local government are a bit concerned that national government did not recognise the clash of dates with the coronation of King Charles III and the local government elections – only two days between them. One is a dead cert, of course (no election involved) but what will the media most likely focus on? What will be the impact on turnout if the media gives the elections short shrift and loads of royalists are pouring down to London for the weekend?
On the plus side, Oliver Dowden, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has announced an £8m government-funded scheme that will allow public authorities, including councils, schools, courts and police forces, to claim a free official portrait photograph of King Charles III. Mr Dowden says the portrait, which has not yet been released, will “serve as a visible reminder in buildings up and down the country of the nation’s ultimate public servant” and will “help us turn a page in our history together and pay a fitting tribute to our new sovereign”.
So we might lose some voters and media coverage but we will get a free picture.
Meanwhile, Essex County Council has created a “spotty road”, designed to encourage children to walk to school under a new “Health School Streets” initiative. Giant coloured spots appeared on Norman Way in Colchester, with locals told that the “temporary street art” is intended to encourage youngsters to walk or cycle to the nearby school. A council spokesperson also said the designs are “part of a package of measures to make the street more visible – to highlight to drivers that there is a school within the vicinity.”