Who needs libraries anyway? How the Tories warped the purpose of local government

Financial pressures are endangering the future of libraries, youth clubs, bus services, street cleaning, park maintenance – and everything else we expect from our councils.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

What do you think of when you imagine your local council? Road repairs, bin collections, libraries? School places, keeping parks clean, and community art projects? Youth clubs, social workers, and care for the elderly?

All these things are the responsibility of local government. But not all of them are mandatory.

Councils provide what are known as “statutory services”, which they must deliver by law. These mainly include adult social care and protecting children.

But local authorities have lost 49 per cent of real-terms government funding since 2010. Some councils have suffered cuts to the point of collapse.

And as local government funding has been hit by austerity, councils have had to spend less on general public services to make sure they can deliver their core, legal duties. The lion’s share of council spending goes on education, followed by adult social care and children’s social care. According to the BBC’s analysis, 33p for every £1 spent on services goes on social care.

This puts huge pressure on councils, and reduces their ability to spend money on anything else. When the government hands out the odd sticking plaster, which it occasionally does in short-term, one-off injections of cash (like the most recent £1.4bn of additional funding for 2018-19 and 2019-20), this is to help councils sustain their core duties.

Councils are deemed financially sustainable if they can fund these statutory services, with no regard for the provision of youth clubs, libraries, parks and other community hubs they are being forced to cut.

Collecting bins, maintaining local roads, promoting public health and library services are legal functions – but they can be easy for pressured councils to work around. For example, there’s nothing in the law that says how often bins should be collected, councils are allowed to set their own definition of a pothole that needs attention, and library services have to be “comprehensive and effective”, a vague description that some councils have been forced to discuss in court.

The sector is concerned that, by propping up funding in the short-term for social care, the Tories are narrowing the definition of local government. It’s another ideological facet of austerity – stripping down the state, and reducing citizens’ expectations of it.

“Rising demand for adult social care, children’s services and homelessness support will continue to threaten other services our communities rely on, like running libraries, cleaning streets and maintaining park spaces,” warned the Local Government Association in its response to last year’s Budget. “Councils also continue to face huge uncertainty about how they will pay for local services into the next decade and beyond.”

This is degrading the public realm, as the New Statesman has been reporting in its “Crumbling Britain” series. It is also harming society, as the UN’s special rapporteur Philip Alston found when inspecting poverty here on a 12-day trip last year.

“The damage that I think is being done to the fabric of British society, to the sense of community which has been built in part around the sports centres, the recreation spaces, the public lands being sold off, the libraries being closed down, the youth centres being downsized, and soon there will be nowhere for people in the lower income groups to go,” he warned.

“Those on higher income groups will have more money, because their tax has been cut, but they will find themselves living in an increasingly hostile and unwelcoming society, because the community roots are being systematically broken.”

At well as changing Britain’s culture, cutting these services is putting more of a burden on schools, the NHS and – ironically – the statutory provision of social care by councils.

I’ve seen this play out in stretched special needs services in schools, which no longer receive adequate council help for pupils with complex needs. This “false economy” was also visible to me when visiting the last council-funded youth club left in Tottenham, where closures of such services are burdening the police, social care and mental health services.

The difference in cost to the state can be marked: £70,000 per year for a young person in social care, compared to £500-£1,000 for a youth service user, according to National Youth Agency head, Leigh Middleton.

This week, MPs are debating the local funding settlement for 2019-20, which fails to release enough extra money for councils to stop cutting unprotected services further. As they do so, they should remember the short-term funding decisions they are making now are damaging the future fabric of Britain.

UPDATE 6/2/19

A report on the state of council finances by the Public Accounts Committee released today accuses the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government of an “unacceptable lack of ambition”, with no aspiration to improve local finances beyond “merely ‘coping’”.

It also expresses “dismay” that the ministry views “financial sustainability of local authorities solely in terms of a small set of statutory services” rather than “the full range of services local people need”, calling on ministers to write to the Committee by May setting out how it accounts for the loss of such services, and what the long-term impact would be.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.