Councils up and down the country are, once again, faced with tough choices. After a decade of austerity with Government cuts of more than 50% to council funding, the COVID-19 pandemic is not only costing lives, but also tearing into council finances.
The fragility of those finances leaves many councils teetering on the brink of issuing Section 114 notices. That would be a disaster for the councils, for residents who rely on services and for the staff who provide them. Pressures built up over the years, coupled with the additional cost of dealing with COVID-19 run into billions. And it’s no good Government ministers saying they stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with local government and we should ‘do whatever it takes’, if they fail to honour their promise to fund the cost of COVID-19.
Readers of The MJ will be all too familiar with how those costs arise, including lost fees and charges income, increases in adult social care, children’s services and SEN transport, court costs, waste collection costs, increased homelessness and temporary accommodation and a huge drop in the collection fund.
Uncertainty is the order of the day. Many small businesses, employing people within their council areas, could go bust; hundreds of thousands of furloughed workers face life without a job, increasing pressure on council services and council tax support schemes. Care providers, who have struggled through this crisis, could eventually fail, leaving local government to pick up the pieces.
Money so far from the Government has fallen way short of the cost. Many councils are having to set emergency budgets, and introduce service cuts, threatening the jobs of our members. Once again, too, councils face the prospect of just a one-year settlement, making it almost impossible to plan. We are forever waiting for the promised fair funding review and a proper national plan for a funded social care service.
We have an over-centralised Westminster-focused Government that doesn’t understand devolution – beyond handing over responsibility when their own efforts have failed, without the cash to do the job. The Government talks a good talk, but the actions don’t match the words, just take the fiasco over funding free school meals in the holidays or the failure to use local council expertise on test and trace.
UNISON has been running a campaign calling for a £10bn boost to local government finances to set them on an even keel. The campaign focuses on showing the public the stark choices that would have to be made if funding continues to be cut.
One thing is clear, local government officers and staff – our members – have stepped up to the mark during this pandemic, going above and beyond to keep local services going. It has highlighted the importance of public service and the institutions and people who deliver them. When the chips are down, it’s not the big multi-national corporations or financial institutions and hedge funds that count, it’s people on the ground making sure children, the vulnerable, the elderly are kept safe and well, the streets are kept clean and safe, that people are fed and have a roof over their heads.
Yet rather than recognising the role of local government workers, the Government has prioritised hitting their terms and conditions by reducing exit payments for staff made redundant. It won’t just be the highest paid staff who will be hit, as the Government argues, but long-serving committed staff on moderate wages. Both the main Treasury regulations and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) regulations to implement the cap are flawed. They are petty and small-minded, rushed through and botched, and they must be ripped up. So UNISON, working with other unions and professional bodies, has written a pre-action letter to the Government threatening a legal challenge.
UNISON has always been committed to delivering the highest services possible to the public. Staff deserve a decent wage and recognition for their work, not cuts in redundancy pay or the sack. There should be an equal commitment from the Government to proper investment and proper devolution of power. Local government needs its workforce, and it needs central Government to provide the sustainable, long-term funding to allow them to do the work that our communities need.
Christina McAnea is Assistant General Secretary of the union Unison and is standing in the election to succeed General Secretary Dave Prentis