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Cllr Sam Chapman-Allen is the Leader of Breckland District Council and the Chairman of the District Councils Network.
Social care is receiving much-needed additional funding after years of neglect. The 2023-24 local government finance settlement, announced this month, allows councils with social care responsibilities to raise council tax by an additional two per cent above the raise sanctioned for other councils. This is also on top of what the government said was an extra £2bn in central funding for social care. These extra resources should be welcomed.
However, councils without social care responsibilities – district councils, the tier I represent as chairman of the District Councils’ Network (DCN) – were denied this level of extra support. We were limited to three per cent council tax rises and scope to increase our spending power by five per cent, far below the rate of inflation. Other English councils’ spending power is rising by more than nine per cent.
This is a clear disparity at a time that the cost-of-living crisis hits us all hard. While no one should begrudge social care’s ascent up the national political agenda and we can all recognise additional funding is needed, it appears that central government has again overlooked other local services and the huge potential benefits that investing in these areas can also bring.
If this is a fair summary of the central government outlook, new evidence suggests the public thinks otherwise. Research commissioned by the DCN from the independent analysts BritainThinks demonstrates the immense importance our residents attach to district council services such as waste collection, housing, planning, leisure services, and parks and recreation.
In exclusive new polling, more than 70 per cent of shire England residents – those living in places with both district and county councils – named waste collection, street cleaning, housing, and economic development as crucial services. Waste collection was deemed to be the single most vital local service with 92 per cent of people describing it as ‘important’.
What is more, nearly two-thirds of people agreed that district services such as leisure centres and parks can keep people healthy and ease the strain on the NHS. A similar proportion noted that their district council’s work can help build a thriving local economy, including a buoyant town centre. Majorities of people also thought that district services support the most vulnerable people in their communities and that districts’ work to improve neighbourhoods brings about local pride.
Little of the national debate has centred on such services. But the evidence is that the national debate does not reflect the views of the people. Far from merely seeing local government as a social care delivery organisation – and remember that social care services support only a very small proportion of the overall population – there is huge affection and appreciation for the broader array of local services.
The 180 or so district councils are the most localised form of principal authority in England. We are the bodies closest to our residents; we have an unrivalled convening power to bring together the people, businesses, and organisations in our communities, whether we are a coastal town, cathedral city, rural area, or market town. We, as district councils, have used our unique local knowledge and understanding of our communities’ needs to support them through Covid and now the cost-of-living crisis.
When asked which tier of government they trusted to bring about pride in their area, two-thirds of people opted for their district council, against 28 per cent for counties and six per cent for national government. District councils were the tier overwhelmingly trusted to bring the views of local people in decision-making, to tackle social issues in neighbourhoods and to respond to emergencies. And 59 per cent of people could correctly identify their district council, nearly twice as many as could identify their county council.
This preference for localism surely raises questions about why existing district councils will, at the end of this month, be abolished in Somerset and North Yorkshire, to be replaced with single unitary county councils despite a survey of Somerset residents – undertaken when reorganisation was being discussed – showing nearly three times as many people backed a multi-council model as supported a single county unitary.
While districts do not run social care departments, they are freer and have greater flexibility to make interventions which meet the needs of their communities. This can include tenant-landlord mediation services to prevent homelessness; drawing together local data to single out struggling households for extra support; and grants for poorer residents to insulate homes, for instance. Meanwhile, our leisure centres enhance health and wellbeing, helping keep people physically and mentally fit for longer. Interventions led by district councils, working in close partnership with GPs, NHS trusts and others, enable people to access support sooner, helping people avoid crisis and reducing the demand on health services, time and budgets.
The truth is that districts deliver. Our communities know it and central policy-makers need to start recognising it too. We are seeking freedom – to use our local knowledge to set the council tax we need in order to deliver the services and interventions that improve lives and cut costs further down the line. We also need freedom to raise planning fees so they reflect the cost of providing services. And we need stability – about our funding in the coming years. Give us this and our universal local services, which are so well appreciated by our communities, will thrive.