This week more councils, including Derby, Rutland and Wakefield have announced that they will be increasing council tax by the maximum allowed (4.99%), without a referendum or special allowance by central government. Thurrock Council has also approved an increase of 9.99%, following the government’s agreement that the authority could increase its council tax by up to 10% following its section 114 notice. However, Croydon Council has voted against the proposed 15% increase in its council tax, allowed by government following a section 114 notice.
With more councils warning of the likelihood of other section 114 notices being issued over the next financial year, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee has, this week, launched an inquiry into financial reporting and audit in local authorities.
Also this week, the LGIU has published the results of our finance survey, which examines the state of local government finance in 2023.
The Financial Times has reported that the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will spend 25% – or nearly £2.5bn – less on regeneration projects this year than planned, including £1bn originally intended for new affordable homes.
As we await next week’s budget announcement, reports suggest that the Chancellor will extend the energy price guarantee for a further three months from April to maintain the current cap on energy prices for consumers. The LGIU will be publishing an on-the-day briefing covering the key issues for local government of the budget statement on Wednesday.
This week LGIU has launched its election support starting with personal safety, including a free guide and personal safety training (free for members, £10 for non members) on 15 March.
Environment and transport
Oxfordshire County Council and Oxford City Council have, this week, received £5m in funding from the government’s £450m Heat Pump Ready programme, which will be used to install 186 heat pumps in the area. However, the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee, in a recent letter to the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero, has warned that the heat pump subsidy scheme is failing because of low uptake.
Waverley Borough Council and environmental campaigners have been given approval to bring a High Court challenge against the government’s decision to approve plans for an exploratory oil and gas well to be dug in the Surrey Hills, close to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Surrey County Council had previously refused permission for the proposal but its decision was overturned by planning inspectors, and housing minister Stuart Andrew later approved the exploratory drilling plans.
A new report, commissioned by the National Trust, Historic England and the Crown Estate, suggests that retrofitting the UK’s historical buildings could generate £35bn of economic output a year, create jobs and play a significant role in achieving climate targets. Improving the energy efficiency of historical properties – those built before 1919 – could reduce carbon emissions from the UK’s buildings by 5% each year and make older homes warmer and cheaper to run, according to the study. The report estimates that an extra 105,000 workers, including plumbers, electricians and carpenters, are needed to make historic buildings more energy efficient, which is over double the number currently working on the issue.
Newcastle City Council has revealed this week that more than 1,600 drivers were fined for not paying Newcastle’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ) charges during its first month. The council reports that 1,476 journeys were paid for in the CAZ compared to 1,658 drivers who flouted the toll and were fined.
Meanwhile the BBC has reported that the CEO of HS2 Ltd has said he is in talks with the government over the project’s timing and phasing – due to the significant impact that inflation has had on the costs of the development of the high speed rail link over the past year.
Housing and planning
At the first proper meeting of the new Westmorland and Furness Council, which covers most of the Lake District, the local authority voted to double council tax bills for second homeowners. It is the latest council in an area popular with holiday homeowners to introduce such a measure as part of efforts to prevent local people from being priced out of the places they grew up in. The increase will be added to bills from April next year if parliament passes levelling-up legislation to give local authorities more powers. Council research has shown that in Windermere 641 homes, or 14.5%, are second homes. In Lakes Parish, which includes Ambleside, the proportion is 20.9%. In Patterdale it is 25.3% and in Matterdale it is 23.8%.
Portsmouth City Council has also backed plans for owners of second homes and empty properties to be charged double council tax. Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson said the move could raise up to £2m a year for the local authority’s revenue budget. He commented: “What strikes me is that we have 1,600 homes that are empty or second homes and we have more than 2,000 people on the housing waiting list. Houses should be used for those who need them.”
An LGIU briefing on second homes and holiday lets will be published later this month.
A study by Shelter shows that 27% of homeless families were moved into temporary accommodation more than an hour away from where they used to live. Families are often given little warning before being told to switch to new living arrangements. Six in 10 households received less than 48 hours’ notice when they were last moved. Shelter’s survey recorded the experiences of more than 800 homeless families with more than 1,600 children living in temporary accommodation across six council areas in England. The charity wants the government to end the freeze on housing benefits to help tackle the issues raised.
See the latest LGIU briefing on housing and planning here.
Health and social care
A report from The Health Foundation has found that while delayed discharges from hospital are currently at record levels, with around 13,000 hospital beds occupied by patients who are medically fit to be discharged each day, the NHS itself is responsible for the majority of delays, rather than the availability of care home beds and support packages. According to the think tank, just 15% of patients are waiting for care home beds, while 24% are waiting for home care packages, while the majority are delayed by NHS processes such as paperwork, arranging transport, carrying out diagnostic tests or organising medication. The report notes that in many cases, delays occur because “necessary steps often happen one after the other, rather than in parallel”.
The latest monthly round up of health and social care issues can be read here.
Children and education
New data reveals that the number of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) who are either excluded or waiting for a school place has increased 29% since 2020. Analysis shows that, in 2020, almost 2,400 children with an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan were either excluded or waiting for the school place they were entitled to in order to meet their needs or disabilities. However, this year this had risen to more than 3,000 children. Of those, nearly 1,600 were not in education at all.
A report from the charity Shelter has revealed that almost half (47%) of children who become homeless have been forced to move schools. Some 22% have had to move school multiple times as a result of living in temporary accommodation, while 52% have missed days of education because of the disruption. Of these, more than a third (37%) have missed more than a month of school.
School meal providers have warned that pupils could miss out on fresh fruits and vegetables due to the UK’s food shortages. They say items such as lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers are among the items off the menu due to “extreme shortages” and “unviable costs”. Caterer Sodexo said it had been forced to adjust menus by using frozen and tinned fruit and vegetables.
Meanwhile, Westminster City Council is to extend its provision of free school meals to thousands of children in nursery and secondary schools. Currently in England, all children in reception, years one and two get free school meals, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged to offer this to all primary school pupils in the capital for one year from September. Westminster will go even further by feeding three- and four-year-olds in nursery schools, as well as those in the first three years of secondary school.
MPs on the Education Committee have been told that schools are seeing “a huge amount” of pupil absence on Fridays with children staying at home with their parents following a shift in attitudes post-Covid. Children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, said persistent absence from schools is “one of the issues of our age” and called for a “razor sharp focus” on the problem. She cited analysis showing that 818,000 of the 1.6m children who were persistently absent across the autumn and spring terms in 2021/22 were off school for reasons other than illness. She told the committee that mental health issues, disadvantage and unmet special educational needs and disabilities were all key factors behind increased persistent absence in schools post-Covid.
The government has committed to providing equal access to all sports in physical education (PE) for boys and girls, a minimum of two hours of PE a week and a multimillion-pound investment in sports and after-school activities. Ministers said over £600m will be provided over the next two years to improve PE and sports in primary schools and up to another £57m to open more school sport facilities outside school hours, especially targeted at girls, disadvantaged pupils and pupils with special educational needs.
A recent LGIU briefing on the latest Ofsted annual report can be read here.
See the latest LGIU round up on early years and childcare here.
Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants
The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has vowed to “push the boundaries of international law” to stop migrants entering the UK illegally, as she unveiled a new law to detain migrants who arrive illegally and deport them to their home nation or a safe country, such as Rwanda, to claim asylum there. Under new legislation, migrants will only be able to prevent their removal on asylum, human rights or modern slavery grounds in exceptional circumstances. The legislation will give the Home Secretary powers to counter European Court injunctions, such as the one which last summer blocked the first deportation flight of Channel migrants to Rwanda.
The Home Office has this week confirmed that since January, it has located just 13 of the 200 asylum seeker children who have gone missing. At the start of the year the government disclosed how many unaccompanied children who had sought asylum in the UK were missing after a whistle blower raised concerns about human trafficking at hotels where they were being housed. Since then, four more youngsters have gone missing. The Home Office said officials are working “around the clock” with police and councils to locate the children.
Meanwhile the Guardian reports that data from the Home Office, released under Freedom of Information laws, reveals that 566 potential or confirmed victims of human trafficking were confirmed missing between 2020 and 2022 after being referred to the National Referral Mechanism, which is intended to provide support to victims. Maya Esslemont, director of non-profit After Exploitation, said it is “incredibly worrying that such significant numbers of victims are slipping through systems of support”, with the data showing “a real risk of re-trafficking in the UK, even amongst people who report modern slavery and make steps towards recovery”.
The latest LGIU briefing on refugees and asylum seekers can be read here.
In the week of International Women’s Day, a new report from PwC reveals that the UK’s gender pay gap has widened as sharp increases in the cost of childcare hamper women’s employment outcomes. The firm’s Women in Work index shows the nation’s average pay gap widened by 2.4 percentage points to 14.4% in 2021. With childcare costs rising faster than pay increases, Larice Stielow, senior economist at PwC, says: “The motherhood penalty is now the most significant driver of the gender pay gap and, in the UK, women are being hit even harder by the rising cost of living and increasing cost of childcare. With this and the gap in free childcare provision between ages one and three, more women are being priced out of work. For many it is more affordable to leave work than remain in employment and pay for childcare, especially for families at lower income levels.”
See our Global Local edition on local government and International Women’s Day
A YouGov survey from 2022 also shows that women are less likely than men to request a pay rise and less likely to receive one when they do ask. The LGIU’s Simone Short has this week published a blog on her experiences of the Women in Public Affairs Network and shares some of the tips she has found helpful in pay negotiations.