England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance, Finance

All Things England – the economy, local elections and criminalising whipped cream

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Photo by Andrew Lancaster on Unsplash

Finance and the economy

Official figures published this week show that Britain avoided a recession in 2022. The data show that growth held steady at 0% in the closing quarter of the year, having slipped 0.3% in Q3. A recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of contraction.

However, forecasts from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggest the UK is set to be the only member of the G7 in recession this coming year while, across G20 nations, only Russia will perform worse. The report says GDP will fall by 0.2% over 2023, with this an improvement on the 0.4% the OECD predicted in November. Germany, the second-worst performer in the G7, is forecast to see its economy grow by 0.3%. Among the G20, the UK only avoids coming bottom of the ranking due to the fact Russia’s economy is predicted to shrink by 2.5%.

The government has released data showing that the average council tax bill is set to hit more than £2,000 for the first time this year. Four in five local authorities have opted to effectively increase their rates by the maximum amount, adding £99 to how much a typical household will have to pay. Rates will rise by an average of 5.1% across England from next month, pushing the cost for a Band D property up to £2,065. However, the County Councils Network said the tax hikes and a 4.8% increase in direct government funding are still not enough to cover rising costs and growing demand. It said authorities will still collectively have to save £1bn.

A recent LGIU briefing on living standards can be read here:

Living standards outlook and poverty in 2023

 

Local government minister Lee Rowley has announced that the government is putting Thurrock Council and Croydon Council into special measures, with neither council complying with their “best value” duties. Mr Rowley has announced that former Sunderland City Council chief executive Dr Dave Smith will be put in place as managing director commissioner overseeing Thurrock Council, while a panel is being put in place to direct the running of Croydon Council.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has issued a report showing that just 1% of an estimated £1.1bn of taxpayer cash lost to fraud and error in Covid business handouts has been recovered. The NAO pointed out that councils tasked with pursuing the money have “no financial incentive” to go “beyond the minimum”, as the funds would be paid back to central government. Attempts by the former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to identify losses were also delayed until at least a year after the payments had been made.

Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) chair Richard Hughes has warned that real living standards may not improve until the “late 2020s”. He told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that the country is facing the “biggest real drop in living standards on record”, although he added: “But we do expect, as we get past this year and we go into the next three or four years, that real income starts to recover.” Mr Hughes also warned that the impact of Brexit on the economy is of the same “magnitude” as the pandemic and energy price crisis, saying GDP will be 4% smaller than if the country had stayed in the EU.

Two new LGIU briefings focussed on the detail of the Spring Budget will be published over the next month.

Local elections

A new poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies has found that more than a quarter of voters are still not aware that they will need to show photo identification in order to cast their ballot at the upcoming local elections. Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Society, warns that the new ID requirement is “the biggest change to how we vote in a generation – one that puts free and fair elections at risk”, with poor awareness of the new rules. Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire police have expressed concerns at the possibility of unrest at polling stations.

The LGIU briefing on elections issues for local authorities is here and a briefing on the new voter ID laws can be read here.

A recent LGIU briefing on young people’s attitudes and views on democracy can be read here.

This month the LGIU launched its series of election support briefings. This week’s focus is on local government essentials.

Local elections 2023

Transport and environment

Councils are continuing to form partnerships with electric vehicle (EV) charging providers to address the increasing demand across the country.  Surrey County Council and charge point provider Connected Kerb have announced a plan for 10,000 new public EV chargers to be installed across the county by 2030. Hackney Council has agreed a partnership with EV charging network provider Zest to install an initial 2,500 charging points, taking the number in the borough to 3,000 by 2026, with local residents offered discounted charging through the council’s energy services arm, Hackney Light and Power.

On a more negative note, National Highways has admitted that over half a million trees have died beside a single 21-mile stretch of new carriageway. The government agency planted 850,000 saplings as part of a £1.5bn upgrade of the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon, which was opened in 2020, but three-quarters of them have since died. Experts say this is symptomatic of a focus on tree planting over tree care. Only growing trees capture carbon or improve habitat. South Cambridge DC has campaigned for National Highways to come clean on the losses and put it right. Replanting is expected to begin in October at an estimated cost of £2.9m.

Energy and waste

Energy Secretary, Grant Shapps, announced last week a number of proposals to help meet the government’s net zero commitments – including new green taxes on imported products made in polluting factories, and a new grant scheme aimed at middle-income households to support energy efficiency improvements like insulation. The announcements come as the Climate Change Commission warns that the UK is “strikingly unprepared” for the impact of the climate crisis, with urgent action needed in areas like the heat-proofing of homes, cutting leaks from water pipes, and preparing for flash floods and food shortages.

Meanwhile, Peel Ports in Great Yarmouth is the preferred bidder for the base for the Norfolk Offshore Wind Zone project. Norfolk County Council deputy leader Graham Plant said it is “a big deal for Great Yarmouth and the whole of Norfolk”.  When completed, the wind farm will be able to power about 4.6m homes, making it one of the largest offshore wind zones in the world.

The complications of introducing consistent waste recycling across the country was highlighted this week when the District Councils’ Network (DCN) criticised the government’s plans to introduce consistent waste collection policies across England as potentially chaotic and unworkable. The changes could see councils ordered to arrange the separate collection of six types of recyclable waste. The proposals in the consultation would cost more than £465m per year for the first seven years of implementation, according to research by the DCN.

The government says it would “fully fund” all new waste collection burdens and ministers say standardisation will increase recycling rates and simplify waste management.  But Seven Oaks DC said the reforms would mean more bin lorries on the roads and do nothing to encourage household waste reduction through behavioural change. The leader of Three Rivers DC also warned that: “If we change the rules, some people just won’t bother. If I had to have another three boxes, would I recycle?”. South Holland DC said collecting recyclable materials separately was appealing, in principle, but will not work given the complexities of different areas.

Devolution

Greater Manchester has signed off its devolution deal with the government that gives it new powers over transport, housing and technical education, with Mayor Andy Burnham, handed full control over finances. Levelling Up minister Dehenna Davison met with Mayor Burnham and the 10 council leaders last week to make the deal official.

Mayor Burnham said it will be one of his most significant achievements as a politician because it affects the whole country. He said the deal demonstrates that English devolution is working and allows Greater Manchester to go further and faster towards shaping its own future. He committed to laying out a plan for a London-style public transport network which includes trains by 2030 using the new powers in the deal. He also promised to pioneer a new approach to improving housing standards and to create the country’s first integrated technical education system which links up colleges with businesses so courses reflect the needs of the local economy.

Tracy Brabin and Oliver Coppard, the mayors of West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire, are expected to begin talks for new advanced devolution deals later this year. The Yorkshire Post reports that sources are “confident they will be offered similar deals to both Greater Manchester and the West Midlands”, whose ‘trailblazer’ devolution deals were confirmed in the Budget.

Cornwall Council has published the results of a consultation on whether the county should seek a new devolution deal with an elected mayor. Of 6,105 responses to the 10-week public consultation, 69% opposed a devolution deal with a mayor, while 25% were in favour. However, a separate representative survey carried out by independent survey experts found 65% of people to be in favour of the deal, with just 16% against.

An LGIU briefing on what the Spring Budget means for devolution will be published in the next two weeks.

Crime and anti-social behaviour

The government this week announced a £160m plan to crack down on anti-social behaviour, with increased policing in areas with higher rates of low-level crime, higher on-the-spot fines for fly-tipping and vandalism, and measures to ensure to those handed community orders are immediately tasked with carrying out repairs and clean-up work. Writing in the Daily Mail, the Prime Minister says that communities “will have a say” in the work carried out by offenders, “whether that’s picking up litter, cleaning graffiti or washing police cars. Justice will be done, and it will be seen to be done.” The Government, he said, will also introduce “a new digital tool for people to report antisocial behaviour more easily and receive updates when justice has been done”, and will give councils “the powers to bring empty shops back into use and support the regeneration of more local green spaces and parks”.

Meanwhile, Freedom of Information requests have revealed that 32% of domestic abuse survivors on local authority lists have waited at least two years for council housing, with just 17% offered homes after 12 months. The delays are happening despite laws under the Domestic Abuse Bill that should put survivors at the head of the queue. The Mirror says that 6,310 domestic abuse survivors became homeless in 2021 and 68% said housing worries stopped them from leaving sooner. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said it is consulting on “how we can give victims a better choice on where they rebuild their lives” and it will share the results in due course.

Housing and planning

The anti-social behaviour crackdown announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will, he says, include measures to make it easier for both councils and private landlords to evict problem tenants. A “three strikes and you’re out” rule for council tenants will make it easier for councils to evict tenants who disturb their neighbours with drug-taking or loud music, with those evicted sent to the back of the housing queue, while private tenancy agreements will have to include clauses banning anti-social behaviour, with a reduced two-week notice period for eviction on those grounds.

Communities Secretary Michael Gove has also said that the government will bring forward changes to its Levelling Up Bill aimed at restricting “the way that homes can be turned into Airbnbs” as he acknowledged a problem with holiday lets preventing younger workers from living and finding a job near to home.

A recent LGIU briefing on second homes and holiday lets can be read here.

Cornwall Council has introduced a Private Sector Leasing (PSL) scheme, in a bid to ease the county’s housing crisis. The local authority is appealing for people with a “spare room, empty property or unused annexe” to consider becoming landlords. The council will help by identifying potential tenants for spare rooms or “leasing and managing the letting of privately-owned properties”. Under the PSL, the council provides a “full management service” with the property returned to the owner “in the same condition as when it was taken on”. The local authority also runs the Cornwall Housing Private Letting scheme and a home share scheme, matching householders with people in need of housing.

A recent Global Local briefing on housing shortages can be read here.

The latest LGIU housing and planning update can be read here:

Housing and planning round-up March 2023

Children and education

The government has this week announced £2.5bn of funding to help repair and maintain school buildings and provide additional school places in the coming years. The total includes £1.8bn of investment to improve the condition of schools in the 2023/24 financial year, coming in the wake of calls from unions for action to address growing numbers of school buildings “at risk of collapse”, along with £487m to help councils provide more school places from 2026. Skills minister Robert Halfon said the investment “will transform school and college buildings so they are fit for the future and can provide the best education for students, no matter where they live”.

Childcare providers have warned Jeremy Hunt that a plan to expand free provision will “absolutely guarantee” the closure of more nurseries, the departure of staff and a fall in places if there is not a substantial increase in the funding behind it. Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association, said: “The more funded children that [nurseries] are taking, the more losses they’re making. On average, providers lose £2.20-2.30 per child, per hour. That’s the gap at the moment. Unless proper funding follows, all we’re doing is exacerbating the problem”.

A report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) shows that teacher vacancies in England have increased by 93% since before Covid. The findings also indicate staff turnover is still rising, with vacancies in schools in England up 37% compared with 2021/22. As well as a problem with retaining teachers, the study highlights recruitment problems into the profession, with initial teacher training numbers for 2023/4 significantly below target. The NFER has called for a long-term strategy on teacher pay to try to bring stability to the sector.

In the aftermath of the tragic suicide of Ruth Perry, the head of Caversham Primary School in Reading, following an Ofsted report that downgraded her school, research by charity the Hazards Campaign and the University of Leeds has found that stress attributed to Ofsted inspections was cited in coroners’ reports on the deaths of 10 teachers over the past 25 years. The findings come alongside an Observer investigation which shows how the pressure of school inspections has led to headteachers suffering heart attacks, strokes and nervous breakdowns.

Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants

Reports this week suggest that the Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, is expected to announce the government’s plans to end the use of hotels to house asylum seekers – with plans to instead turn to alternative accommodation including disused military bases, disused cruise ships and ferries, and accommodation barges.

Conservative MPs and councils are stepping up their opposition to some of the Government’s plans to house asylum seekers on former military bases, boats, and a former prison. Braintree District Council is seeking an interim injunction from the High Court over plans to house asylum seekers at a former RAF base, with West Lindsey District Council preparing a similar legal case. Jackie Doyle-Price, Conservative MP for Thurrock, said plans to house asylum seekers on barges are “more of a gimmick than something that’s going to deliver”, adding that the “Home Office just needs to get its act together and start processing quicker”, while South Dorset MP Richard Drax said the use of boats should be “totally and utterly out of the question”.

Veterans’ minister, Johnny Mercer, is expected to announce that the government is to commit up to £750m to move around 8,500 Afghan refugees from hotels into permanent homes. Families are expected to receive three months’ notice in April to vacate their hotels and be offered a single property that they must accept, or will need to register as homeless. Once refugees are moved into permanent housing, their local authority will receive £20,520 in funding per person over three years to support them, with additional payments for children, adult English language support and healthcare.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that private firms are making increased profits as the government pays millions of pounds a day to put up asylum seekers in the UK. The government has never publicly confirmed the number of hotels involved, but BBC News has been told 395 hotels are being used to house asylum seekers, as arrivals to the UK rose last year. At the same time, documents show one booking agency – Calder Conferences – which finds hotels for the Home Office, trebled its pre-tax profits from £2.1m to £6.3m. Calder’s director, Debbie Hoban, saw her annual remuneration increase from £230,000 to £2.2m.

Reports last week in the Daily Telegraph, the Express and the Mirror suggest that a North-South divide has opened up in the UK’s asylum system, with towns and cities in Northern England and Scotland hosting far higher rates of asylum seekers in ‘dispersed accommodation’ like hotels, compared to those in the South. Glasgow is hosting a total of 4,456 people, which is a rate of 70 per 10,000 population – the highest rate of any area in the UK. The North West borough of Halton has England’s highest rate, followed jointly by the North East areas of Newcastle, Middlesbrough, and Hartlepool.

Health and social care

Councils have warned that public health services will have to be cut to fund the new NHS pay deal, as they have been informed that no extra money will be provided by the government to cover increases for NHS staff they employ directly. It will mean local authorities face at least an extra £66m shortfall in their health budgets. LGA spokesperson, David Fothergill, said councils should not be expected to meet the extra costs, saying: “Public health services, such as for sexual health or school nurses, are crucial in helping to relieve the pressure on our health and care system but these unfunded pay increases mean they could face an uncertain future. Vital public health services run by local councils cannot continue to maximise their role at the heart of communities while continually having to make budget cuts or manage uncosted new burdens.”

The recent LGIU briefing on the role of councils in integrated care systems can be read here:

The role of councils in integrated care systems

The proportion of care home residents unable to access an NHS dentist has quadrupled in just three years, a Care Quality Commission report reveals. Its survey found the figure has grown from 6% in 2019 to 25% last year. The number of homes stating residents were always or mostly always able to access NHS dental care has almost halved, from 67% to 35%.

The latest monthly round-up of health and social care issues will be published next week.

Arts and culture

The government has announced that more than 70 cultural groups outside of London will share a £58.8m pot to aid access to the arts and level up communities. Beneficiaries of the Cultural Investment Fund include Basildon BC, which will receive £4.4m to turn empty town centre units into a creative facility for screen and immersive digital industries. Bradford, which was named UK City of Culture for 2025, will receive £4.9m to redevelop the Kala Sangam intercultural arts centre and other resources to establish a network of local arts hubs.

Meanwhile, Coventry City Council has asked the government to conduct a review into the collapse of the Coventry City of Culture Trust, which entered administration in February, leading to 50 jobs losses and throwing future events planned to build on the city’s year as City of Culture in 2021 into doubt.

A major new TV and film studio in Birmingham is expected to create more than 750 jobs. Construction has started on Digbeth Loc Studios, set up by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. The site has been confirmed as the location for a new Peaky Blinders movie and is hoped to grow the local production industry. It will also offer music production capacity. The project has attracted £1.3m in public money through the city deal fund. The money is the result of an agreement between Birmingham City Council and Homes England, to pull together commercial land for the creative sector. West Midlands mayor Andy Street said at the launch it is a “landmark moment” for the city and region, expected to contribute more than £30m to the local economy.

Other news

Apparently, a campaign group, going by the name of Cockney Cultures, have successfully petitioned Tower Hamlets Council to have the cockney dialect recognised as a official language in the borough, to help preserve its “unique cultural heritage”. Saif Osmani from Cockney Cultures commented: “Never has there been a need for so many to embrace their inner cockney spirit and attitude, based on values of resilience and defiance, resourcefulness, all underpinned by a stoic and irreverent wit.” As a native geordie I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to pronounce that quote in cockney.

In other news the government has announced plans this week to outlaw the possession of nitrous oxide, otherwise known as laughing gas, as part of its crackdown on anti-social behaviour. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has said that an outright ban would be disproportionate and would create “significant burdens” on those with legitimate uses, such as its use as an anaesthetic or to make whipped cream. I need to lose a couple of stone so I’ll give up the whipped cream.



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