Here’s why councils should get a share of the government’s NHS “birthday present”

Happy birthday? What exactly is so happy about it? Image: Getty.

Every day, a new story emerges about the spiralling financial crisis in local government. If it isn’t a new council announcing mammoth cuts to simply stay afloat, it’s new data revealing how a vital local service is facing meltdown.

The government, however, seems uninterested. Extra funding is going in only one direction – towards the NHS in the form of the £20.5bn “birthday present” announced by the Prime Minister in June.

One day, students of public finance will study this as an example of policy-making at its most irrational. The £20.5bn was announced as a response to the rapidly rising demand, which is stretching NHS services to snapping point. But if councils are left to fall apart that demand will only rise further and faster.

This is because councils do the things that keep people from bothering the NHS in the first place. They make sure the elderly and people with disabilities are cared for. Councils keep roads, town centres and businesses safe and clean. Their public health teams educate local communities about how to stay well. They expend a great effort on steering troubled children away from drugs, self-harm and mental illness.

Maybe more fundamentally, councils are tasked with providing the housing and local business investment that gives people the decent homes and jobs that all research shows is vital to better physical and mental health.


So far, the government has avoided confrontation with the absurdity of its position by claiming that the problems facing councils are all the result of local mismanagement. Northamptonshire, the first council to effectively declare bankruptcy in decades, has been subjected to a convoluted inquiry and structural re-organisation in an effort to pin the blame on local leaders.

But as the number of councils declaring themselves to be in severe financial straits has grown over the last few weeks, the government’s line is looking increasingly detached from reality. The conclusion that the real cause of the crisis is the 50 per cent cut in government funding councils have endured since 2010 is becoming unavoidable.

No doubt the Treasury’s next move will be to shift money around within the overall budget for councils to bail out those facing immediate difficulties. There is an obvious opportunity to do this given a review on how council funding is allocated will report very soon.

The government may buy some short-term respite by shifting funds to struggling councils. But if that comes at the expense of withdrawing even more funds from other councils then the problems will only re-emerge elsewhere.

The chancellor could avoid these undignified and self-defeating manoeuvres easily: spread the £20.5bn of love directed at the NHS more widely. If that money is genuinely to be used as a response to rising demand then sharing it with local government makes far greater sense than blowing it all on the health service.

How much would need to be shared? The Local Government Association has estimated that councils need an extra £7.8bn just to keep services at their current rather threadbare level over coming years. But there is more to it than that.

Such significant funding shared between the NHS and councils could, if positioned right, enable a major shift towards a system built around preventing people getting ill in the first place rather than being treated once they do. A great partnership between the two biggest providers of public services in the country to keep people healthy and out of hospital: the benefits to the economy, the public finances and simple well-being could be huge.

Adam Lent is director of the New Local Government Network. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.