Councils on the brink | Time for Fair Funding

FCOUNCIL2FULL Council meets tonight to consider our budget proposals for the 2018/9 financial year.

This marks the end of a process that officially started last April and has seen a huge amount of work carried out examining all kinds of financial options and projections.

Given the huge pressures we face, it has also inevitably meant a lot of soul-searching as we strive to balance the books and protect vital services.

Since 2009 Oldham Council has now lost more than a third of its workforce and more than £200 million in Government funding – with up to another £20 million in savings to potentially find again next year.

Nobody goes into politics to put Council Tax up or to make cuts to key services but for the past decade these have been the pressures driving much of our deliberations.

We manage this challenge well in Oldham and have so far avoided some of the more drastic cuts that other authorities have made in areas like children’s centres, libraries, leisure centres and parks – but you can only dodge a bullet for long.

Councils up and down the country like ours also know that the tax rises they have planned won’t offset the cuts they are experiencing.

stackAcross England extra Council Tax will bring in an estimated £1.1bn in the next financial year which nowhere near covers the £1.4bn cut in central government funding.

These austerity-led cuts are not sustainable and the difficulties at Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire County Council – which essentially declared itself bankrupt earlier this month – shows that none of us are exempt from the strain.

What is happening there is just a snapshot of the difficulties all councils are facing: a growing population and one that lives longer, children that need more care and people that are struggling to get on in life, get on the property ladder, and have falling living standards and incomes. Rising demand, falling budgets.

Adults and children’s services are particularly underfunded with no clear solution in sight. We have an £8m pressure on the children’s’ services budget this year alone and councils can’t just keep dipping into reserves or selling buildings and land to get by.

The Government’s ‘answer’ to all this is to make councils rely in future on their Business Rates income, but as things stand that system will simply perpetuate inequalities and make them worse.

Areas with bigger business rates are already better funded and places with smaller business rate bases, like Oldham, will get poorer by comparison.

Next year, for the very first time, our Business Rates will constitute more of our income than what we get from Central Government support and that is a watershed moment.

We urgently need fair funding from Westminster and clarity about the future funding model for local services. There are few commitments on what lies ahead and finance settlements are typically thrown to us at the very latest possible moment, which also hampers our medium and long-term planning.

Here at Oldham Council what we must focus on is what we can influence and do ourselves to tackle this crisis.

CONSULTPOSTERWe are, for example, working hard to transform our ‘fiscal base’ – changing the sources of where our future income comes from – and that’s why the Oldham Town Centre Masterplan is so important with the boost to the economy, jobs and Business Rates it will produce.

But what is most frustrating about all this is the effect on residents. People in places like Oldham are being told to pay more, but also to expect to get less for their money. That doesn’t bode well for democracy, trust or local services.

The Government’s current stance on funding points to a bleak future where councils like ours would only be able to deliver statutory services – those we are legally obliged to.

Oldham has suffered more than most areas from the cuts and it’s time the Government put real measures and funding behind its rhetoric about preventing people being ‘left behind’.

I want to close today by thanking Councillor Abdul Jabbar, our finance team and all those members and officers involved in the difficult task of preparing this budget.

There is little sense of relief as we’re already thinking hard about what happens next year and beyond, but I promise that our work to try and increase our income and the prospects of local people will continue.

It is needed now more than ever.

Jean

Child Poverty – Guest Blog

COLDHURST has been in the headlines this week after a national study was published on child poverty.

I asked Abdul Jabbar, Oldham Council’s Deputy Leader, to guest-blog on the issues this has raised as he knows Coldhurst better than most.

He was keen to talk about the challenges and issues around child poverty, what we are doing – and what we need to tackle it more effectively.

Over to Abdul…

Oldham 23.2.16-9424COLDHURST is in my heart and many members of my family call it ‘home’.

I first came to live here when I was 14 years old and I’m very proud to have now represented this area for almost a quarter of a century as a ward member.

During that time I’ve worked among all our communities, probably knocked on every single door at one time, and seen all the kinds of challenges faced by local families.

I felt saddened this week when Coldhurst hit the news after a report by the End Child Poverty group said it has the highest child deprivation rate in England with over 60 per cent of youngsters living ‘below the breadline’.

Saddened, yes. Surprised? No.

I don’t fool myself that Coldhurst and other areas aren’t facing serious challenges because I see it every day around me.

The problems for our least well-off families are unrelenting and getting out of the poverty cycle has never been harder than it is today.

But there is something that is absolutely great about Coldhurst – the people who live there.

Yes, there are problems with crime and anti-social behaviour like fly-tipping, but walk around those streets and you’ll also find many friendly, positive people and a sense of community that you might not see in more affluent areas.

Within Coldhurst I know groups and associations, GPs, headteachers, community workers, voluntary organisations and residents who are all working hard to make the most of what they have.

Our challenge at local and national level is to match that.

There are a lot of factors behind child poverty.

The four-year freeze on social security benefits – amongst other welfare reform measures like the Bedroom tax – has been felt most by the poorest families.

UCREDITOldham was a pilot area for the rollout of Universal Credit which has caused huge problems by leaving families without money for several weeks, forcing many people into making desperate choices between heating the home or eating food.

Many people in Coldhurst do work extremely hard for long hours but due to low skills, stagnant wages and increasing living costs, things are tough. Many are also living in low-quality rented homes that are actually more expensive than social housing.

Worst of all is the fact that children are suffering. Not just because they are vulnerable now, but because if you have a bad start in life then your chances of success in adulthood are not good.

Coldhurst is not alone, however. Oldham has other pockets like this and so do our neighbours in Greater Manchester and big cities like London. End Child Poverty say that more than half of all children in the UK’s very poorest areas are now growing up in poverty.

We are trying to address these issues locally on many levels.

The Oldham Education and Skills Commission committed us to improving our education by 2020 and we are on target to achieve this, but it won’t be enough on its own.

We’ve introduced schemes like Warm Homes Oldham to help with fuel poverty, Get Oldham Working to improve employment prospects, Get Oldham Growing to improve health, and the Town Centre Masterplan to deliver significant opportunities in the local economy over the next two decades.

northmoorIn Coldhurst itself we invested £7.5 million to open the fantastic new Northmoor Academy (pictured) in September 2016. This three-form entry primary school on the former Grange school site was designed to cope with rising pressure on school places but also to provide a first-class facility where children can thrive.

As part of being a new Opportunity Area we’re also this week about to start rolling out the ‘Making it REAL’ programme in nurseries in Coldhurst. This is intervention in early years’ settings that targets improving literacy and giving children with disadvantaged backgrounds the language skills they need before they get to school. It involves home visits to support and train parents and group events – all have been proved to raise and sustain literacy standards in other areas. The reason we’re doing this is that it has also been shown that language and literacy skills are the most impactful intervention you can make for any child from a disadvantaged background, so we’re determined to get it right.

That kind of work will and must continue, but it still it won’t be enough on its own.

We have a Government that still refuses to set a target to reduce child poverty. For me, if you refuse to recognise a problem exists, then what hope can we have that you’re actually committed to finding – let alone funding – the solutions?

In families where it is hard to make ends meet, only one person is working, bills are paid late and loan sharks are circling, this is not the message they need to hear.

Last week we were told that more people are in work now than for many years. That might be true, but never have so many also been paid so relatively little and with work often on insecure terms like zero hour contracts.

Local authority’s children’s services are also being reduced to firefighting through Government cuts. Without the money we need to intervene at an early stage through important measures like parenting classes, substance misuse prevention and teenage pregnancy support, the impacts can be simply devastating.

This is also a false economy. If we can only get involved when children reach a crisis point then it will result in much more expensive steps in the long term, like taking young people into care.

In the budget we’re currently finalising for Oldham in 2018/9 we have an £8 million gap in funding for children’s social care services. That is a typical picture nationally and yet remains a problem which Government fails to address.

Making significant progress in living standards, wages and skills for everyone is our goal and it’s why we are championing the Inclusive Growth agenda so hard at Greater Manchester level.

As Deputy Council Leader and a ward member for Coldhurst I will continue my efforts for the people of the area alongside our MP, partners, communities and the voluntary sector, to help wherever we can.

But we also need the Government to finally listen and act.

The thought of having a generation of children suffering like this is heart-breaking and it also leaves me in fear of what legacy it will leave us with as a society.

Abdul Jabbar