Finance and the economy
This week the local government secretary, Michael Gove, has granted permission for three local authorities, that have all issued section 114 notices this year, to increase council tax for 2023/24 by more than the 5% limit without a referendum. Croydon Council will be allowed to increase council tax by up to 15% and Slough and Thurrock councils will be able to increase council tax by up to 10%.
In the same week we published a briefing covering a recent report by the Centre for Cities and the Resolution Foundation that examines the stagnation of the UK economy over the past 15 years and suggests that economic under-performance is linked to the centralised state. The report makes the case for radical reform of local economic governance, responsibilities and funding. The briefing, ‘Centralisation Nation’, can be read here:
Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants
The Home Office has now dropped plans to house asylum seekers at a Pontins holiday camp on Merseyside, following opposition from Sefton Council and the local MP regarding accessibility to the site and the impacts on local children’s services and the local tourism industry.
Meanwhile Scarborough Borough Council is considering the offer of a government grant of £744,000 to support the purchase of nine homes in the borough to house refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan. The grant would require match funding and the agreement would be novated to the new North Yorkshire Council, once it has been set up.
The latest LGIU briefing on the current situation regarding refugees and asylum seekers can be read here:
Housing and homelessness
The BBC reported this week that, in the wake of the death of Awaab Ishak in Rochdale, local authorities and housing associations across the West Midlands have earmarked more than £1.5bn for improvements to social housing. Birmingham City Council is to spend £100m a year on improvements to its existing housing stock, as well as £60m on building 215 new homes and £27m on retrofitting 300 homes to improve energy efficiency. City of Wolverhampton Council has set aside £114m for building safety improvements and £105m to build new homes.
This follows the publication last week of the Regulator of Social Housing’s 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.
This week we published a briefing on social housing conditions, ‘Up to Standard?’.
Also this week, a report funded by the Greater London Authority revealed that rough sleeping in the capital has increased by 21% and that the number of new rough sleepers is up by 29%. Of 3,570 rough sleepers recorded on London streets from October to December 2022, 1,700 were sleeping rough for the first time. The Mayor of London has blamed the increase on the cost-of-living crisis.
Health and social care
A head of an NHS Trust has told the Observer that the government commitment to deliver 40 new hospitals by 2030 has no chance of success and suggests that we will be “moderately lucky to have eight”. The paper’s investigation has revealed that only ten hospital construction projects have secured full planning permission.
Also this week, the LGA has warned that the government’s failure to publish public health grant allocations for the coming year is leaving councils unable to properly plan and renew contracts for services such as child health visitors, anti-obesity programmes and drug and alcohol treatment programmes.
On a more positive note, the government has announced this week a £300m rollout of a network of ‘family hubs’ that will benefit 75 local authority areas across the country, up to 2025. The hubs will offer support from conception to age 19, or up to 25 for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. They will act as a ‘one-stop shop’, offering guidance and advice on a range of different issues.
This week the Lords debated the government’s new strategy on children’s social care, which raised more concerns about the profits being made by private sector care providers.
We have just published a briefing this week on vulnerable young people, looking at why they are missing out on education and care, which can be read here:
Environment & transport
A Panorama documentary, ‘Is the cloud damaging the planet?’, broadcast this week, looked at the environmental impact of our increasing reliance on information technology. We learnt that there are now 1000s of data centres around the world consuming massive amounts of power, with back-up requirements and the need for water cooling systems. We were shown a bunker by a Norwegian fjord near Stavanger, that was originally built to store weapons for NATO but is now storing data for a car manufacturer, that uses the same electricity as 100,000 homes. The question was asked, is it time to review our use of IT and cut back on it for the sake of the planet?
In London, the Mayor has announced new planning guidance that sets new air pollution limits for home and office developments that could not be met if the properties include wood or solid fuel burners – effectively a ban on such burners. The guidance also covers biodiversity via wild-life friendly landscaping such as green roofs, trees and hedges.
Outside London, the Department for Transport has, this week, announced a £200m fund to improve walking and cycling routes across the country. Local authorities have been invited to apply to Active Travel England for the funding.
Also this week, a report by Sustrans, the walking and cycling charity, has highlighted the problems of ‘pavement clutter’ for people with disabilities. A survey by the charity, of 1,100 people with disabilities, revealed that electric vehicle charging points, parked cars and on-street dining areas are making their journeys more difficult – some 41% of disabled people typically experience problems reaching their destination and this increases to 55% for those with mobility impairments or learning disabilities.
This report coincided with the news that urban local authorities are increasingly looking at repurposing parking spaces to encourage more motorists to walk, cycle or use public transport. Lambeth Council is planning to remove a quarter of parking spaces in the borough by 2030. Birmingham, Harrogate and other councils are also planning to reduce parking provision in their areas.
Meanwhile, in rural areas, Warwick District Council has engaged local farmers in a project to plant more than 6,000 trees across 12 farms in the district to create new woodland areas, with a longer-term objective to plant 160,000 new trees by 2030 – one for every resident in the district.
Also in the news this week is that Ealing Council is to reintroduce beavers into London!
The ministerial reshuffle this week has seen the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy broken down into three new departments: the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero; the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, and; the Department for Business and Trade. The clear message from the Prime Minister is that these areas require a greater focus.
Reports that Michael Gove turned down the offer of leading the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, to remain as DLUHC Secretary of State, might raise questions as to whether the current Cabinet is agreed on this new focus. It might also raise the question as to how committed our Prime Minister is to the Levelling Up agenda, if he sought to move its key remaining protagonist to a new area.