This week has seen many more councils – too many to mention here – announcing maximum council tax rises and further service cuts in 2023-24, as they prepare their budgets for the next financial year.
At the same time, the Prime Minister has announced that his independent ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, will be looking into the tax affairs of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer (and current chair of the Conservative party), Nadhim Zahawi, following his (reported) £5m payment to the HMRC.
Reports, thus far, suggest that the former Chancellor made an error (rather than sought to deliberately evade payment) in his tax return, as his fine was 30% of tax owed – the normal fine for an ‘erroneous’ tax return. But the fact that a Chancellor of the Exchequer submits an erroneous tax return in respect of his own personal finances must, surely, raise questions about his ability to manage the economy of the whole country?
Irrespective of the former Chancellor’s personal tax returns, at a time when local authorities are cutting services to the bone and having to impose increased local taxes on their residents, who are struggling to cope with a cost of living crisis, any suspicion that individuals at the top of government are engaged in tax avoidance (and even evasion!) leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth.
The HMRC, however, deserves credit in pursuing all individuals who it believes are engaged in tax evasion, by error or otherwise.
Next week sees the publication of an LGIU briefing on the Local Government Finance Settlement for 2023-24.
Last week saw the government’s announcement of funding allocations for the second tranche of levelling up funding. It caused consternation across the political and geographical divide but the responsible minister, Michael Gove, welcomed the ‘debate’.
The Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Smith, described the process as a “begging bowl” approach to funding in his statement that the fund “is another example as to why Whitehall’s bidding and begging bowl culture is broken”.
Our own chief executive, Jonathan Carr-West, stated that people “will debate whether these allocations are right or fair … the real problem here is that this is a crazy way to fund local government”.
Other government statements this week suggest that the proposals to appoint 12 regional directors of levelling up might be scrapped. There have been 500 applications for these posts, since they were advertised last February, but levelling up minister, Dehenna Davison, has now said that the appointment process is undergoing “internal review”, while a senior official said the current “reconsideration” would likely involve “whether or not we will have directors at all”.
At a Convention of the North conference in Manchester this week, mayors and council leaders said the current system that sees towns and cities bidding for government cash is “unfair” and should be scrapped. The call for change comes as a report from the IPPR thinktank shows that if the North of England were a country it would be second bottom of a league table showing levels of investment in OECD countries.
The Levelling Up funding allocations are covered in a new LGIU briefing to be published on Wednesday.
Last month’s LGIU briefing on what people in England think of levelling up can be seen here.
Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants
This week numerous newspapers have reported that a large number of unaccompanied child asylum seekers have gone missing from hotels where they were placed by the Home Office, while awaiting their asylum applications.
An investigation by the Observer found that almost a quarter of a total of 600 unaccompanied migrant children housed at a single hotel in Sussex have gone missing, with 79 still unaccounted for. The Home Office response blamed local authorities, stating that councils “have a statutory duty to protect all children, regardless of where they go missing from”. The Observer rightly noted, however, that the Home Office had, effectively, converted the hotels “overnight into unregistered children’s homes”.
BBC News and the Guardian have, this week, reported that Brighton and Hove City Council is seeking an urgent meeting with the Home Office over reports that dozens of unaccompanied child asylum seekers have gone missing from a Hove hotel.
According to a number of press reports this week the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, has admitted that about 200 children, mostly Albanian teenage boys, remain missing from hotels housing asylum seekers. He told MPs that of 4,600 child asylum seekers who had arrived in the UK since 2021, 440 had gone missing and only half had returned.
The Home Office is clearly failing to engage with local authorities adequately to ensure the safety of young asylum seekers being placed in hotels and other temporary accommodation.
Also this week the government announced a new taskforce to tackle illegal immigration – with immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, to look into measures including restricting access to rented housing, bank accounts, healthcare, education and public funds, and with a focus on cracking down on those working in the service industry, delivering packages, or driving for apps like Uber.
Last week the LGIU published a new detailed briefing on the current situation regarding refugees and asylum seekers and it can be read here:
Refugees and asylum seekers: the challenges and opportunities for local authorities
Temporary accommodation offered to people who are homeless must be properly regulated to reduce the likelihood of them suffering ill health and possibly dying, says a report published this month.
The study, carried out for the all-party parliamentary group for households in temporary accommodation, flags up how much of the accommodation available is poorly maintained, with a lack of basic services. People who are housed there also face problems over accessibility and say they feel unsafe and unsupported.
The latest LGIU housing and planning round-up, that covers the findings of this report and other current housing and planning issues, can be read here:
Michael Gove has vowed to spend £30m in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands to improve social housing following the death of Awaab Ishak, after he was exposed to mould in his flat. The funding will be devolved directly to regional mayors. An LGIU briefing on the issue will be published soon.
Health and social care
This week we saw a BBC news investigation that showed the worst of children’s social care in this country. It revealed that children in a Doncaster care home were seriously physically abused, according to reports that were filed over three years before the homes were finally shut in 2021.
Ofsted has now apologised, as has Hesley Group, which ran the homes. The homes, which included two residential special schools, charged local authorities £250,000 a year to care for each young person. The clear message for local authorities is that we need to strengthen our scrutiny of commissioned services and facilities.
This week the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and the Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, announced a £150m fund to improve support for mental health patients. Among the measures to be funded through the new scheme are new facilities to support urgent and emergency mental health services, including a fleet of 100 specialist mental health ambulances.
A recent LGIU briefing on anxiety and mental distress in the 2020s can be read here:
The latest LGIU monthly round-up of health and social care will be published next week.
This week the environment minister, Rebecca Pow, has confirmed that a new deposit scheme for plastic bottles and cans will be introduced to boost recycling rates – although the introduction of the scheme, first announced in 2018, has been pushed back from late 2024 to October 2025. A deposit of around 20p per bottle and can will be charged at the point of sale, with customers able to return containers to reverse vending machines to reclaim the deposit. Litter pickers will also be able to collect bottles and cans to claim their deposit.
Also this week, a major study of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) in London, conducted by climate charity Possible, has found that the mean percentage traffic reduction on streets within 46 LTNs across 11 boroughs was 46.9%, with many streets seeing fewer than 1,000 cars pass through each day. The charity says that, while its research shows that LTNs “can have an important role in reducing motor traffic on minor streets”, urgent improvements are needed on boundary roads and other main roads for which LTNs are unsuitable, as many see heavy traffic, are hostile to pedestrians and cyclists, and have poor injury and pollution records.
The London Borough of Hackney, which has introduced 19 LTNs since 2020, has this week announced that it is planning to extend its LTNs to cover three quarters of the borough. It has approved plans to introduce six more of the schemes over the next three years. Its Local Implementation Plan is designed to tackle traffic and pollution, and it will see the area have the largest number of vehicle restrictions, bicycle parking spaces and public electric-vehicle chargers in the capital.
As for ultra low emission zones (ULEZ), I reported last week that Sutton Council is preparing to challenge the Greater London Authority and Transport for London’s plans to extend ULEZ to the whole of Greater London. A number of other London councils, namely Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Harrow and Hillingdon are also considering a legal challenge to TfL’s extension of the zone and the placement of enforcement cameras. The councils’ concerns are that the extension of the ULEZ will punish those who cannot afford to buy a more modern vehicle at a time when the cost of living is increasing.
See this week’s Global Local bulletin on air pollution and how local government can help us all breathe easier.
So Andy Murray’s return didn’t last too long but maybe we need to set our sights lower and look at the younger generation for the UK’s return to sporting excellence?
I read last week that the younger son of David and Victoria Beckham (not Brooklyn, the other one – Romeo) has been signed up to play football for Brentford B team in west London.
I have contacts in west London and I have been informed that the coach for Brentford B team was asked by his new signing what shirt number he would have – worried that he might have to wear the number seven shirt, associated with his famous father.
Apparently, the coach wants to put him in a more defensive position and said: “Wear four out there, Romeo”.