Three reforms needed to tackle the crisis in local government finance

Birmingham Town Hall. Image: Very Quiet/Wikipedia Commons.

New research published in the Times on 8 February highlighted the scale of the funding crisis facing many councils across the country, with nine out of ten councils expected to be millions of pounds over budget by the end of the year. This followed the decision that week by Northamptonshire County Council to issue a Section 114 notice, meaning that it will introduce no new spending except on statutory services for vulnerable people – the first such notice issued in nearly 20 years.

In part, the situation in Northamptonshire is a result of poor financial management and political leadership. But this failure – and the struggles that other councils face – also reflects a decade of relentless tightening of local government finances. Many cities have seen cuts of nearly 50 per cent to central government funding since 2010, considerably more than the cuts that other parts of government have faced.

Moreover, it highlights the limitations of a local government funding system dependent on central government for income and for balancing the books, rather than being able to grow their income independently. If the only tool a city has to balance its budget is a knife, then all we’ll see are cuts.

Offering piecemeal bailouts or fiddling around the edges of the system, as the government has done in recent years, is not the answer. For cities to have stable finances and prosperous local economies, they need the tools to raise revenues with taxes that support sustainable economic growth.

So what should the government do to make the local government system stable and sustainable?

1. Revalue and devolve council tax

Regressive both nationally and locally, the failure to revalue council tax since 1992 means that it does not reflect the wide differences in economic gains seen across the country since then. Relative winners are homeowners in the South with more valuable homes and higher salaries, while those in the North where wages and assets have not grown so much carry a disproportionate load. For example, a £1m home in London is taxed to nearly the same amount as a £100k home in Sunderland. As a tax on home values, it fails on its terms.

To address this problem, there should be annual revaluations, and local authorities should have the power to introduce new bands and vary rates freely. This would support new development, and would enable local leaders to address budget issues by raising revenue rather than by simply cutting.


2. Reform the business rates system to make it more responsive to local economic conditions

This is the only tax of its kind in the UK where the amount raised is determined before the rate is decided. As such, even if the number of companies paying rates increases, the amount of business rates raised does not go up.

As our recent briefing on business rates devolution shows, one damaging effect of the current system is that it favours building more floor space in large developments – often in out of town areas – over improving and expanding the value of office space in city centres, where higher knowledge firms often seek to locate.

This has implications for economic disparities across the country. Cities in the North with an already large share of low skilled jobs are incentivised to attract more big new distribution sheds, when they really need to secure more high skilled jobs to grow their economies. Introducing annual revaluations would make the business rates system more reflective of increases in rents, not just increases in floor space. This would sharpen the financial incentives for cities to invest in and support the transport networks, high quality office space, and public realm that high-knowledge firms and workers are looking for.

3. Pooling finance at city region level

In UK cities, people live and work across multiple local authority boundaries. Over 50 per cent of people commute into a different local authority to work.

And different areas play different roles within cities, some more commercial (most often those in the centre) and others more residential (more likely the surrounding areas). This affects the levels of council tax and business rates raised across different authorities within the same city, and creates a divide over where business rates are raised and where the workers contributing to these rates use services.

Pooling at the city region level would help to improve the stability of local finances by diversifying and broadening the tax base. Doing so would also improve how big decisions are made within a city region about where to build commercial or residential space. Under the current system, councils within a city are understandably driven to boost their local tax base through new development. Pooling would help to secure higher absolute levels of council tax or business rates revenue across a city by putting it where it is most needed at that more representative scale.

In the current system, other councils may manage to avoid having to follow the example of Northamptonshire. But without this fundamental reform, we will see more cities cutting down on the activities they fund – which will be bad news for their economies, and for the people living in them.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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What would an extended Glasgow Subway look like?

West Street station. Image: Finlay McWalter/Wikimedia Commons.

There are many notable things about Glasgow’s historic Subway.

It is the third oldest in the world. It is the only one in the UK that runs entirely underground. It runs on a rare 4ft gauge. For reasons passing human understanding, it shuts at teatime on a Sunday.

But more significantly, it’s the only metro system never to have been expanded since its original development. A couple of stations have come and gone in the 122 years since the Subway opened (and promptly shut again following a serious accident before the first day was out). But Glasgow’s Subway has remained a frustratingly closed loop. Indeed, while a Scottish newspaper recently estimated there have been more than 50 proposed new stations for Glasgow's iconic Subway since it first opened, all we’ve had are a couple of replacements for closed stops. 

The original route map. Image: SPT.

It’s not for a lack of trying, or at the least discussion. Glasgow’s SNP-led council pledged a major expansion of the Subway as part of their election pledge last year, for example, vowing to find the funding to take the network beyond the existing route.

All this sounds very familiar, of course. A decade ago, with the 2014 Commonwealth Games in mind, operators SPT began looking into a near-£3bn expansion of the Subway into the East End of the city, primarily to serve the new Velodrome complex and Celtic Park.

In the end, the plans — like so many discussed for expanding the Subway – failed to materialised, despite then SPT chairman Alistair Watson claiming at the time: “We will deliver the East End extension for 2014. I am being unequivocal about that.”

As detailed previously on CityMetric, that extension would have seen seven new stations being opened along a second, eastern-centric loop, crossing over with the original Subway at two city centre sites. Had that gone ahead, we would by now have had a new route looking something like this:

The 2007 proposals for an eastern circle. Image: Iain Hepburn.

St Mungo’s would have been close to Glasgow Cathedral. Onslow, presumably located on or near Onslow Drive, would have principally served Dennistoun, as would have a link-up with the existing Duke St overground station.

Gorbals, benefiting from the ongoing redevelopment and residential expansion that’s all but erased it’s No Mean City reputation, would have gained a station, while Newhall would have been next to Glasgow Green. Dalmarnock station would, like Duke Street, become an interchange with Scotrail’s services, while crucially Celtic Park would have gained the final stop, serving both the football stadium, the nearby Emirates Arena and velodrome, and the Forge shopping centre.


Those plans, though, were drawn up more than a decade ago. And if the SNP administration is serious about looking again at the expansion of the Subway, then there’s more than a few changes needing made to those plans.

For starters, one stop at the far end of the loop serving Celtic, the new sports arenas and the Forge feels a bit like underselling the area, particularly with so much new residential development nearby.

Two feels more realistic: one serving the Forge and the rest of Dennistoun, and the other sited on London Road to serve the mass volumes of football and sports traffic. And if Ibrox can have a stop, then it seems churlish not to give the other of the Old Firm clubs their own named halt.

That’s another thing. The naming of the proposed stations is… arbitrary, to say the least. You’d struggle to find many Glaswegians who’d immediately identify where Newhall or Onslow were, off the top of their head. 

The former, especially, seems like there’s a more natural alternative name, Glasgow Green; while the latter, with a second Forge stop also serving Dennistoun, would perhaps benefit from named for the nearby Alexandra Place and park.

(Actually, if we’re renaming stations from their unlikely original choices, let’s say goodbye Hillhead and a big hiya to Byres Road on the original Subway while we’re at it…)

So, what would a realistic, 2017-developed version of that original 2007 proposal give us? Probably something like this:

Better. Image: Iain Hepburn.

One glaring issue with the original 2007 study was the crossover with the… let’s call it the Western Subway. The original proposal had St Enoch and Buchanan St as the crossover points, meaning that, if you wanted to go out east from, say, the Shields Road park and ride, you had to go into town and double back. 

Using Bridge Street as a third interchange feels a more realistic, and sensible, approach to alleviating city centre crowding and making the journey convenient for folk travelling directly from west to east.

There’s a good case to be made for another south east of the river station, depending on where the Gorbals stop is sited. But these are austere times and with the cost of the expansion now likely more than £5bn at current rates, an expanded Bridge Street would do much of that legwork.

Putting all that together, you’d end up with something looking like this:

 

Ooooh. Image: Iain Hepburn.

Ahead of last year’s election, SNP councillor Kenny McLean vowed the party “[would] look at possible extension of the Subway and consider innovative funding methods, such as City Bonds, to fund this work. The subway is over 120 years old. It is high time that we look to connect communities in the north and east of Glasgow.”

Whether Glasgow could raise the £5bn it would probably need to make the 2007 proposal, or an updated variation of it remains, to be seen. And this still doesn’t solve how many places are left off the system. While a line all the way out to Glasgow Airport is unrealistic – after all, an overground rail service to the airport from Paisley has failed to materialise after 30 years of discussion and planning – there’s plenty of places in the city not well served by the Subway, from Maryhill in the north to Hampden in the south, or the riverside developments that have seen flats replace factories and new media hubs, museums and hotels line the Clyde.


Image: Iain Hepburn.

Key city landmarks like the Barrowlands, the Riverside Museum – with its own, fake, vintage subway stop, or the Merchant City are woefully underserved by the subway. But their incorporation – or connection with a Glasgow Crossrail – seems a very expensive pipe dream.

Instead, two adjoining loops, one to Ibrox and one to Celtic Park, seems the most plausible future for an extended Subway. At least colour coding the lines would be easy…

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