Councils are using their reserves to plug funding gaps. Here’s what that means

Surrey County Hall. We have no reason to suspect Surrey is running out of money, but it’s a nice building. Image: Getty

Local government is part of the fabric of our country. Councils are the ones who can make a difference to people’s lives by building desperately-needed homes, creating jobs and school places, providing dignified care for our elderly and disabled and boosting economic growth.  

But the money local government has to maintain these vital services is running out fast.

Councils have experienced disproportionately large reductions in government funding over this decade, in comparison to the rest of the public sector. Councils will have lost almost 60p out of every £1 the government had provided for services.

But what does this actually amount to? The bigger picture is that councils in England are now facing an overall funding gap of £8bn by 2025. And this is just to stand still and incorporate additional demand, and does not even take into account important improvements in local services and councils’ prevention and early intervention work. 

Very often it is those who are most vulnerable and need support across a range of services to improve life chances that rely on our local services the most. Pressures are growing in children’s services, adult social care, and efforts to tackle homelessness. This is leaving less and less money for councils to fund other services, like fixing potholes, improving roads and transport links, bus services and cleaning streets. 

It is unsurprising that more and more councils are struggling to balance their books. Money is increasingly having to be diverted from optional services, which help build communities people want to live in, to plug growing funding gaps, while some councils have already been forced to cut their services back to the legal minimum “core offer”. 

Some councils are facing a choice between using reserves to try and plug funding gaps or further cutting back local services in order to balance the books. This is unsustainable and does nothing to address the systemic underfunding that they face. Ongoing funding gaps facing local services are simply too big to be plugged by reserves. 


Reserves are used to make long-term investments, such as job-creating regeneration schemes, infrastructure projects and creating school places as well as to invest to save, for example in technology. Use of reserves can also help councils manage growing financial risks to local services, which is increasingly important given the financial uncertainty they face. 

Without a doubt, the Spending Review will be make or break for vital local government services. 

That is why the Local Government Association has launched its #CouncilsCan campaign to build support among the public, councils, parliament and central government for long-term investment in local government at that Spending Review.  

Local government needs a sustainable funding system which provides the resources councils need to deliver local services. With the right funding and powers, councils can continue to lead their local areas, improve residents’ lives, reduce demand for public services and save money for the taxpayer.

But while the funding is critical, our campaign is not just about asking for more money – it’s about highlighting how councils can achieve the best for their communities with the right powers and investment. In many cases councils have already got proven track records of how they have managed to keep successful local services running through improvement and innovation despite a lack of funding.  

And while these many examples show how councils are doing what can with what they have, many efficiencies and savings have now been made and the right powers and funding are needed for councils to make a positive difference to residents’ lives and continue to reduce pressures on the rest of the public sector.

Without urgent changes, it is the people who rely on and value council services that will suffer. Councils make our communities places we want to live in and people rightly look to their council to support them and their family and to be at the heart of their community. This campaign wants at put the issues councils are facing to the top of the government’s agenda. It is crucial that the government addresses the issues councils are facing in the upcoming Spending Review. 

Richard Watts is a Labour councillor for the London Borough of Islington and the chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board.

For more information on the #CouncilsCan campaign click here.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.