Finance, the economy and devolution
Research published this week by the County Councils Network (CCN) suggests that three quarters of primary authorities are planning to increase council tax by the maximum allowed without a referendum. The CCN analysed the budget plans of 114 out of the 152 councils in England with responsibility for social care that have published details so far. It found 113 are planning to increase council tax, with 84 proposing a 5% rise from April and just one – Central Bedfordshire – keeping tax at its current rate. The remaining 38 councils have yet to set out their plans.
At the same time the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has released data that shows that the English economy is 1.7% smaller than its pre-pandemic level of output. The data also reveals a wide discrepancy in economic output across regions. London’s economy has pulled further ahead of the rest of England since the pandemic, growing by 2.7% compared to pre-Covid. The only other region that has recovered to its pre-pandemic level of output is the North West. Gross domestic product (GDP) in the area is now 2.2% larger than it was at the end of 2019. By contrast, the economies of the East and West Midlands have shrunk by 5.7% since the pandemic. The worst performance came from the South East, where output was down 7.1% on pre-pandemic levels. The ONS also showed that London was the fastest growing region in the second quarter of 2022 at 1.2%, as well as having the fastest annual growth rate at 9.5%.
In respect of devolution, there were reports this week that the Treasury is considering full retention of business rates for the combined authorities of the West Midlands and Greater Manchester as part of their forthcoming devolution deals. Both mayors in those regions, Andy Street and Andy Burnham. have been managing pilots of full business rate retention. The reports suggest that this could provide a blueprint for other areas negotiating devolution deals with government.
Meanwhile, City of York Council is expected to press ahead with devolution proposals – including an elected mayor – after a public consultation revealed narrow support for the proposals. Some 54% of respondents said they supported or strongly supported the proposed York and North Yorkshire deal. Around a third (32%) of respondents opposed or strongly opposed the proposal, while a further 12% said they neither supported nor opposed it. A total of 1,943 people completed an online survey, and a council report says overall engagement with the community “appears high” in comparison to other devolution consultations held in the country. A final decision will be taken by the council later this month.
Essex County Council, Southend-on-Sea City Council and Thurrock Council are also considering setting up a combined authority and hope to be meeting with the government to discuss it next month. The local authorities will talk about whether to express an interest in both a level two and level three deal at cabinet meetings next week. Level two would give an Essex combined authority greater power on local training and skills, and control an adult learning budget of up to £84m. Level three would give greater powers on local rail services, running Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) employment programmes locally and an investment pot worth a forecasted £1bn over 30 years. There would be a directly-elected mayor overseeing the combined authority.
Look out for our Finance survey. If one hits your inbox, please take a few moments to complete it.
Environment & transport
This week the Greater London Authority (GLA) published a report that details the extent to which London’s ultra low emissions zone (ULEZ) has reduced air pollution in the capital. Toxic nitrogen dioxide concentrations are estimated to be 46% lower in central London and 21% lower in inner London than they would have been without the ULEZ. Data also shows that the zone’s expansion to the North and South Circular Roads in October 2021 led to a 60% reduction in non-compliant vehicles, taking the equivalent of 74,000 polluting vehicles off the roads per day.
London councils opposed to the expansion of ULEZ, specifically Bexley, Bromley, Harrow and Hillingdon, have questioned the validity of the data used in the report. At the same time, county councils bordering London, specifically Buckinghamshire and Essex, have refused to allow the GLA to install signage warning motorists that they are entering an expanded ULEZ. It is looking like the issue will be going to court as Hertfordshire, Kent and Surrey county councils have also raised concerns about the extension of ULEZ to the whole of Greater London and the resulting impact on their residents.
Also this week, data from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) shows that pollution from woodburning stoves has more than doubled in just 10 years. Emissions of the pollutant PM2.5 from domestic wood burning alone increased 124% between 2011 and 2021. At the same time, Bedford Borough Council and Northamptonshire County Council are said to be considering expanding their smoke control areas, under which open log fires are banned. The government has urged local authorities to use their powers to tackle the sources of air pollution to help reach its new legally binding targets to reduce the level of PM2.5 fine particulate matter by 2040.
This week the Department for Transport has revealed that ministers are set to order a review into the entire HS2 project amid mounting pressure to rein in its runaway budget. HS2 Ltd will be asked to re-evaluate the scheme, assessing whether scrapping proposed stretches of the line or delaying completion of the project are necessary. Lines under threat include the 60km stretch from Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway. The review will also examine cutting the section north of Crewe and instead running trains into Manchester on existing tracks. The opening of the section from Old Oak Common, west London, to Euston could also be delayed.
Other transport news this week is that, while many local authorities are looking at introducing reduced speed limits on their roads, the London Borough of Wandsworth has been barred by the government from “unlawfully” fining drivers who break 20mph speed limits, after the local authority became the first to set up its own cameras and attempt to issue tickets. The council had introduced speed cameras on a trial basis on two of its 20mph roads, with the intention of rolling out the scheme borough-wide eventually. However, the Department for Transport (DfT) has now intervened and called on the DVLA to stop sharing details of drivers with the local authority. It is understood that the reason for the scheme being unlawful is that, under current legislation, only the police are able to issue fines for offences like speeding.
Housing and planning
This week Michael Gove visited the parents of Awaab Ishak, the two year old who died in Rochdale as a result of mould in the home, and announced an amendment to the Social Housing Regulation Bill that will impose a time limit on landlords to address health hazards in social housing. Last week we published a briefing on social housing conditions, ‘Up to Standard?’.
A new scheme put in place by Bristol City Council is aiming to tackle the housing crisis by building micro, carbon-neutral homes in council tenants’ back gardens. Bristol-based community land trust WeCanMake has a toolkit for unlocking micro-sites through community-led opt-in densification that is designed so other neighbourhoods can use it. The charity estimates that its scalable model for building homes in existing council sites could result in a further 33,000 affordable homes being built across England.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, has ordered a review of the planning permission process with a view to making it easier to approve large-scale infrastructure schemes, including major roads, reservoirs and airports as well as energy developments. The time taken for the approval of big projects has increased by 65% in a decade, according to the Treasury, and whilst officials say the ability of local residents to object will not be removed, the number of opportunities to do so will be reduced. A need to keep seeking approval for minor changes to plans will also be scrapped. The National Infrastructure Commission has been asked to make recommendations for an action plan. It will look at more frequent updating of national policy statements after the Treasury said this is “crucial for supporting timely decisions.”
Children and young people
Concerns have been raised this week about the government’s ability to meet a target of ensuring 90% of children achieve the national curriculum standard in reading, writing and maths at the end of primary education by 2030. After a number of years of slow progress, attainment has slipped back to levels only slightly above those of 2015-16, according to researchers at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). The thinktank found that in 2022, 41% of year 6 pupils in England left primary school without meeting the expected standards in literacy and maths. A report also states that the attainment gap in education – that between the poorest and most advantaged – is at its widest level for a decade. The CSJ states that “radical plans” are needed to reverse the slide.
Also this week, analysis by the Institute of Health Visiting shows that more than 84,000 babies missed out on health visitor checks within the first two weeks of life last year. It indicates a national shortage of at least 5,000 health visitors. Figures from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities show a drop in the proportion of babies given a health visitor check on time, from 88% in 2020/21 to 83% in 2021/22. Regional disparities are also revealed, with the proportion of babies receiving visits within 14 days at just 71% in the East of England and 73% in the South West. The NSPCC charity has called for the government to deliver an improved Healthy Child Programme and increase funding for health visitors as part of an upcoming NHS workforce plan.
This week’s LGIU briefing on sharing learning on maternal and child healthcare can be read here.
A report this week by the Fischer Family Trust (FFT) found that a third of 15-year-olds have been persistently absent from classrooms in England during the current school year. The analysis of attendance rates at more than 7,000 state schools found that pupils in years 9 and 10 had been worst affected, closely followed by those in year 11. FFT Education Datalab found almost 5% of teenagers in years 10 and 11 were classed as severely absent, meaning they had missed at least half the autumn term. Across all year groups, it estimated that about 170,000 pupils in England could be classed as severely absent. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly prone to absence, according to the FFT data. It found 50% of disadvantaged year 10 pupils were persistently absent, missing at least 10% of school time, nearly double the rate of other pupils in the same year group. Headteachers said that parents are more willing to allow their children to stay at home and, in some cases, are more relaxed about their children being out of the classroom since the Covid pandemic.
This week Barnardo’s called on the government to widen a pilot scheme in Cornwall, providing free bus travel for young care leavers up to the age of 25, across the UK. The children’s charity has invested in the scheme along with Carefree Cornwall, bus operators and Cornwall Council. Roads minister Richard Holden said other parts of the country, including Gateshead and Newcastle, had been looking to “follow Cornwall’s lead” with the scheme. He added: “I’m always at the mercy of the Treasury for funding but I will always push for local transport and local transport schemes, particularly when it affects vulnerable transport users.”
This week’s LGIU briefing on the government’s plans for improving children’s social care can be read here.
This week the Telegraph analysed Home Office data on the placement of asylum seekers and revealed that ‘Red Wall’ areas are housing seven times as many asylum seekers per person as South East England. Red Wall areas have, on average, 15.2 asylum seekers per 10,000 of the population compared with just 2.1 per 10,000 in the South East. It means Red Wall areas have the second highest rates for asylum seekers in the UK after the North East of England, which tops the table at 29.3 per 10,000. Labour-controlled councils have 16 asylum seekers per 10,000 people, compared to 2.8 per 10,000 in Conservative areas, according to the analysis.
This may reflect the variation in the cost of housing provision across the country and the similar discrepancy in such costs between authorities controlled by the respective political parties.
The latest LGIU briefing on the current situation regarding refugees and asylum seekers can be read here:
This week ONS data has revealed the shocking fact that the number of knife-related murders in England and Wales in 2021-22 has reached its highest level since records began, more than 70 years ago, with four in 10 of all murders now involving a blade. There were 282 homicides committed with a knife in the year to March 2022, a 19% increase on the previous 12 months. In total, 696 people were killed in the 12-month period – a return to pre-pandemic levels. Most victims were men but the number of women killed rose by 21% to 198.
We also learned this week that a leisure and culture development in the hometown of the late Larry Grayson will be named after the entertainer and drag artist. Grayson Place in Nuneaton – set to include a cinema and food hall along with retail space – was named after consultation with the community.
Reports that signage above the entrances and exits to the new development will be ‘Ooh, shut that door’ could not be confirmed at the time of going to press.
Learn something new
Overview & Scrutiny
Online Training | 09:30–11:30 (GMT) | 22 Feb
Expert LGIU trainer, Miranda Smythe, is getting into the details of scrutiny in this interactive online session. Sign up now before spots fill up!
Not for you right now? Check out the rest of our training courses and events.