Finance & devolution
This week it was reported that up to 95% of local authorities are expected to increase council tax to the maximum 5%. Liverpool City Council is the latest authority to announce that the maximum council tax increase will still not be sufficient to meet its budget deficit for next year and that there will also need to be significant service cuts to balance the budget. Look out for the return of our annual finance survey next week – please do fill it out if it lands in your inbox with findings returned around budget time, handily.
Also this week the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has revealed that he is considering increasing the level of business rates that can be retained by local councils, from the current level of 50%, as part of wider devolution plans.
This news came at the same time as the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, signed off a £1.4bn, 30 year devolution deal for the North East, covering Northumberland, Newcastle, Gateshead, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham. Mayoral elections are planned for May 2024.
Analysis reported in the Daily Express this week suggested that the most deprived 10% of local authorities have received a smaller share of the Levelling Up Fund, than if it had been shared equally across all the authorities.
At the same time the BBC reported on a new study, ‘Communities on the Edge – levelling up England’s coastal communities’, which has highlighted the problems of struggling coastal communities, where nearly one in five jobs pay below the national living wage and average household income is nearly £3000 lower than in non-coastal areas.
The Levelling Up funding allocations are covered in this week’s LGIU briefing on the finance settlement, linked above.
Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants
Following the news last week that a large number of unaccompanied child asylum seekers have gone missing from hotels where they were placed by the Home Office, the deputy leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, Hannah Allbrooke, has written to the Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, claiming that the Home Office has failed in its duty of care to asylum seeking children. This follows the minister’s statement last week that it is the responsibility of the local authority to protect the welfare of children within its area. Cllr Allbrooke points out that Brighton and Hove City Council was only given 24 hours notice of the placement of the children in a hotel chosen by the Home Office.
Also reported in the Observer this week was a claim that children seeking asylum placed in a Home Office-run hotel were threatened with violence and subjected to racist abuse by staff.
There was news this week that there might be progress in the ongoing battle between the government and private housebuilders over who should be responsible for the removal of dangerous cladding on tower blocks, following the report of the Grenfell inquiry. The Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, has announced that developers will need to sign up to a new contract within the next six weeks, requiring them to fix unsafe cladding or face being banned from building new homes.
At the same time Bristol City Council has announced that it is investing £97m over the next ten years to make its 62 high rise blocks more fire resistant, with the removal of dangerous cladding and the installation of sprinklers.
The Regulator of Social Housing has published its initial findings into conditions in the social housing sector that reveals that 1-2% of social homes, some 40,000 to 80,000 homes, are estimated to have serious damp and mould problems, with a further 3-4% (120,000 to 160,000 homes) having notable damp and mould.
Health and social care
The government has this week announced a new strategy for addressing children’s social care that will allocate a total of £200m to strengthen local child protection teams and address staff shortages of children’s social workers. The strategy will be piloted in 12 local authorities, with an allocation of £45m, before being rolled out.
Meanwhile research from Cambridge University reveals that the tax on sugary drinks, introduced in April 2018, coincided with an 8% drop in obesity levels in Year Six girls, rising to 9% in girls from deprived areas. The report found, however, that there was no similar association with obesity levels in Year Six boys.
The latest LGIU monthly round-up of health and social care can be read here:
Environment & transport
The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, is pressing ahead with the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in London, despite concerns raised by London councils with regard to the seven month implementation timetable, the limited scrappage scheme and poor public transport links in outer London. Four outer London boroughs: Bexley, Bromley, Harrow and Hillingdon, are refusing to sign the agreement to permit works to place cameras on the boroughs’ streets and have initiated legal action to prevent the works going ahead.
At the other end of the country, the Tyneside Clean Air Zone (CAZ), launched in October 2022, with cameras across Newcastle and Gateshead, started charging drivers of non-compliant vehicles from this week.
It is widely acknowledged that we need to reduce air pollution in our urban areas and this week the government announced that it won’t hit its target of reducing the concentration of PM2.5 pollutants until 2040, even though its target is twice that of the recommended limit set by WHO guidelines. PM2.5 pollutants, the most serious air pollution particles in respect of public health, are mostly produced by wood burning and fossil fuels.
However, the government has no plans to ban wood burning stoves in urban areas and Labour has claimed this week that the government is set to miss its target of installing 300,000 new electric vehicle (EV) chargers by 2030 by some 20 years – with less than 9000 new charging points installed in the UK last year. Analysis reported by the Times this week reveals that there are 30 electric vehicles for each charging point at present, compared with 16 vehicles per charging point in 2020. It would appear that the installation of EV chargers is not keeping pace with the increase in electric vehicles.
See our recent Global Local bulletin on Air Quality
More positively, the government has this week revealed a new environmental improvement plan for England which should ensure that every household is situated within a 15 minute walk of a green space or water. The plan commits to restoring at least 500,000 hectares of wildlife habitat and 400 miles of river, including 25 new or expanded national nature reserves and 3000 hectares of new woodland along England’s rivers.
I recognise that this has been a rather depressing summary of the week’s news (and I haven’t even mentioned our national government’s internal problems or the national strikes) but that is reflective of the times so let’s look to the arts and culture to lift our spirits.
This week Bradford City Council announced plans for its year as City of Culture. This will involve 24 festivals, 365 artist commissions and over 1000 performances and programmes.
In the same week, the official keys of the Eurovision Song Contest have been handed to the Mayor of Liverpool, Joanne Anderson, by the Mayor of Turin, Stefano Lo Russo, in a grand ceremony.
I realise that many of us might not place Eurovision under the category of arts and culture and Merseyside has a lengthy history of musical innovation and excellence – with the exception of Abba, not widely associated with the annual Eurovision contest – but it takes our minds off the depressing stuff and shows that we have not completely left Europe, post-Brexit.