12 February 2019
Last week, the government released its final local government finance settlement for 2019 to 2020. It came at a challenging time for both Oxfordshire County Council and Oxford City Council.
The demand for services provided by both has increased substantially over recent years. There was a 14% increase in looked after children, just over the nine months to December last year. There has also been a big rise in demand for services for children and young people with Special Educational needs, with the Dedicated Schools Grant set to overspend by £8million this year. The extent of pressure on council-provided housing and rough-sleeping services has significantly increased following national cuts to social security and continuing rises in rents. And while there has been a tiny (1%) dip in the number of people needing adult social care, the cost per person has increased as peoples’ needs have become more complex.
All this has left councils struggling to cover their costs. Sadly, the new settlement reduces their funds still further. Between 2015-6 and 2019-20, central government grants for both Oxfordshire and Oxford councils will have dropped by over a third.
Local authorities are now being cut not just to the bone, but well beyond it. Worryingly, one third of local councillors across Britain in a recent survey reported that their local authority was struggling to properly look after children. This is despite a national increase in the number of children going into care.
Even aside from the huge personal impact on those children, we know that it makes financial, as well as human, sense to keep children with their families, when those families are properly supported and monitored. These services should not and do not have to be cut back. I have argued that just reversing cuts to the bank levy, for example, would be sufficient to pay for properly staffed and resourced children’s services.
Indeed, the central government cuts have been a false economy. We are told that local councils can simply raise council tax to fill the gigantic hole left by central government. This ignores the fact that council tax is largely regressive. Thankfully in our city, council tax relief is still provided to low-income families. That is not the case in many other areas, where large numbers of people are being taken to court for non-payment of council tax- not because they don’t want to pay, but because they can’t.
Local authority services often go relatively unnoticed aside from their direct users, until they go, when suddenly the whole community becomes aware. This arguably happened in Oxford with the loss of our Sure Start children’s centres. But we *all* benefit from having properly educated and safe children, clean streets, safe and healthy elderly people, decent leisure centres and all the myriad other services that our local authorities provide. For that reason I will continue to argue for a fairer funding settlement for Oxford, for Oxfordshire, and for local government more generally.