Newcastle City Council funding cuts debate

Catherine secured an end of day adjournment debate in the Commons on 8th January, on ‘the effects of the reduction in funding to Newcastle City Council’.

This the full transcript of her speech. The rest of the debate can be read here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130108/debtext/130108-0004.htm#13010855000002

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I am grateful to have this opportunity to discuss what may well be one of the most urgent and pressing issues affecting my city: the budgetary black hole currently faced by Newcastle city council as a result of the reductions in funding received from central Government, alongside ever increasing cost pressures faced by the authority. I am particularly pleased to be joined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), who is keen to contribute to the debate.

Before turning to the effects of the reduction in funding for Newcastle city council, I want briefly to analyse the frankly dire financial position in which the council finds itself. To make up for the significant shortfall in funding that it faces, the local authority anticipates, following analysis by the city treasurer of figures published by Ministers just before Christmas, a shortfall of £100 million over the next three years. So about £39.3 million of the funding black hole is a direct result of reductions in central Government grant funding.

The remainder of the funding gap results from unavoidable cost pressures that the council has to absorb. They include rising costs caused by inflation—of goods and services, heating and electricity—and an ageing population that means that an increasing number of people require support to live independently in the later years. Worryingly, an increasing number of vulnerable children are also being taken into care.

The economic downturn is also having a big impact on the level of income that the council is able to raise from the goods and services that it provides, such as retail lettings and car parking. There is simply less money going round. The council could, of course, have looked to increase council tax to reduce its funding gap, but has decided that that would be the wrong decision at what remains an incredibly difficult economic time for household budgets. I support its decision, for which the Government have made some resources available.

In light of the severity of the situation, the council took the decision to publish a medium-term, three-year indicative budget, believing that an open and honest approach is the best way to ensure that core local services remain affordable and sustainable into the future. However, that three-year budget and the ongoing public consultation on the proposals that it contains have caused significant concern in Newcastle and beyond, as the council has been forced to make difficult, if not impossible, decisions about the services and activities it can simply no longer afford to fund.

Perhaps the most vocal has been the campaign against the council’s proposal to cut, in phases, 100% of its funding to certain local arts organisations, many of which are of national significance. Leading well known Geordies, including Sting, Jimmy Nail, Mark Knopfler and Lee Hall, have publicly castigated the council for the proposal, which would impact heavily on treasured assets such as the Theatre Royal, Northern Stage, Dance City, Live Theatre, the Tyneside cinema and Seven Stories, recently renamed the National Centre for Children’s Books. A campaign is also under way to protect Newcastle city hall—our 85-year-old music venue whose long-term future I genuinely hope can be secured. The council further proposes a 50% cut in funding to Tyne and Wear museums, which will mean a significant reduction for the Discovery museum, the Laing art gallery and the Great North museum.

Nobody needs to persuade me of the importance of any of those institutions to our city. Indeed, they have all played a central role in the remarkable culture-led regeneration that has taken place on Tyneside over the past decade or so under the Labour Government, and many of them mean that creative opportunities and experiences are available to people of all ages in Newcastle that simply did not exist when I was a child. A recent economic impact assessment for NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues found that for every £1 of public money invested in cultural venues there was a return on investment of £4. These organisations directly employ about 1,000 people and support the local economy, procuring at least two thirds of their goods and services from north-east suppliers.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I am keen to work with the hon. Lady on trying to persuade the Government that, as with previous Governments, the funding formula is not satisfactory, but she must recognise that other authorities such as Labour Gateshead and Liberal Democrat Northumberland have not slashed 100% of their arts budget or closed their swimming pool.

Catherine McKinnell: I am pleased by the right hon. Gentleman’s support. I will go on to address the issue that he raises, because it is a matter of perception that needs to be properly understood.

By significantly improving the quality of people’s lives, these organisations make Newcastle a place in which people want to live, study, work, do business and invest. That is why I am angry about the invidious position in which Newcastle city council now finds itself in being forced to choose between services that make Newcastle the fun, vibrant, economically viable city it is, and services such as protecting the most vulnerable children in our community.

A further vociferous campaign by well known authors has been launched against the council’s proposal to close 10 of its 18 libraries across the city, which for my constituency will mean the branch in Dinnington closing in June this year and those in Newbiggin Hall and Fawdon closing in March 2015. As a mother of two young children, I am all too well aware of the vital role played by local libraries in our communities, whether in encouraging a love of reading, providing a place to study, or offering toy-lending services or access to IT facilities. I am dismayed that the council’s financial situation is so dire that it is closing what, to me, represents part of the great Victorian ideal of municipal service provision—facilities that, once closed, will probably be lost for ever.

Equally saddening are proposals to close City pool by 2016, and in my constituency to reduce funding for Newburn leisure centre while seeking alternative arrangements to manage Outer West pool and Gosforth pool. This scenario is frankly devastating coming just after what must have been Britain’s most successful ever sporting year and a London Olympics that was intended to “inspire a generation”.

Then there are the proposals to cut funding for play and youth services, while a £5 million reduction in funding will, by 2015-16, see the end of Sure Start centre provision in Brunswick, Fawdon, Denton and Westerhope, Lemington, Newbiggin Hall and Newburn—and that is just in my constituency. The importance of Sure Start services in supporting young children and families is absolutely invaluable, and I have serious concerns about the sheer number of places in my constituency that will no longer be able to access such facilities, which have become embedded in local communities.

Possibly of greatest significance in impact on individual lives is the proposed closure of Cheviot View, which opened only in 2008 in Newbiggin Hall to provide overnight residential short-break care for children and young people with disabilities. Many families are extremely concerned about the potential effect on their quality of life if the closure of Cheviot View is to go ahead.

Those are just some of the ways in which cuts to Newcastle city council’s budget will impact on local residents and organisations. Of course, the council is not just reducing front-line services; it is also cutting 1,300 of its remaining 8,000 staff over the next three years. I expect that the Minister will want to characterise these people as “pen-pushers” doing “non-jobs”, but let me assure him that they are not. They are dinner ladies, refuse collectors, people working in children’s services—real people with real lives and real families to support, now looking for work elsewhere at a time when opportunities are pretty scarce.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the misleading statement by the Prime Minister last week, and does she think that it is mere coincidence that the areas hardest hit are those with the greatest need?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I need the hon. Gentleman to rephrase what he thought about the Prime Minister’s statement. He cannot make that accusation. He can say another word rather than “misleading”, and I would like him to do it now.

Steve Rotheram: The Prime Minister has already admitted that the statistics he gave only last week were misleading. He said that he was poorly briefed, but the statistics were misleading.

Catherine McKinnell: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and clarification. I will go on to address some of the misleading information that has been circulating and the concern that it has caused.

What has the Government’s response been to the situation in which Newcastle and other local authorities throughout the country now find themselves? Sadly, it seems to be one of complete disdain. I, like many others, am extremely concerned about the way in which the Secretary of State has attempted to dismiss and downplay the very real concerns about the impact of his funding decisions.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s withdrawal of funding is undermining local communities in Liverpool as well as Newcastle?

Catherine McKinnell: It is obviously for my hon. Friend to speak on behalf of the people of Liverpool, but I have no doubt that the cuts are impacting on all of the core cities and I will make the economic point about that later in my speech.

Baroness Eaton, who was until recently the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, described the Secretary of State’s understanding of the effect of local government cuts as

“detached from the reality councils are dealing with”.

I could not agree more. Meanwhile, Sir Merrick Cockell has called the cuts “unsustainable” and the Tory leader of Kent says that his county “can’t cope” with further reductions and is “running on empty”.

When deliberating on what I would raise in this debate —unfortunately time is short and it has been difficult to cut down my speech—I decided to think about what the Minister would say in response. That is fairly predictable, so I will use this opportunity to respond now to what I believe he will say.

I am sure that the Minister will claim, like the Secretary of State before him, that the average reduction in council spending power across the country has been only 1.7% and, indeed, that Newcastle has fared pretty well, because its spending power has fallen by only 1.5% in cash terms as a result of the recent funding settlement. I say to him that that is disingenuous at best and seriously misleading at worst.

The headline figure, which applies to only the first year of the settlement—2013-14—has in fact already been shown to be inaccurate and substantially understated, with the Department for Communities and Local Government double-counting the council tax support grant and council tax income for both 2012-13 and 2013-14. Other errors include the cut in the early intervention grant being significantly understated. Newcastle city council believes a more realistic estimate of the cut to be 3.2%, which is more than double the published figure, or a 4.9% cut in grant funding. I therefore ask the Minister to make a commitment this evening to ensure that statements made about the level of spending power cuts are formally corrected.

The 1.7% headline figure also completely masks the far greater cuts that will take place in year 2 of the settlement. Newcastle faces a 6.8% drop in spending power by 2014-15, compared with a 5.5% average fall in England and only 1.6% in Surrey.

The Minister will no doubt try to persuade me that the cuts being experienced by Newcastle are fair and not disproportionate when compared with other parts of the country, but the facts show clearly that over the next three years the cuts will be much higher in northern areas and a few inner-London boroughs. According to DCLG’s own figures, the cut in Newcastle’s spending power between 2012-13 and 2014-15 will be £218 per person, compared with a national average of £134 and a cut of only £27 per head in Wokingham.

I refer to Wokingham because, in returning to my predictions, I assume that the Minister intends to make the time-honoured comparison between Newcastle’s situation and that of the Berkshire town. He will inform us that Newcastle sill has a spending power per household that is more than £700 greater than that in Wokingham. Nobody doubts that that is the case and let me be clear: I have nothing against Wokingham. I use that example because it is the one that Ministers always bring up whenever challenged on their approach to spending cuts.

I thought it might be helpful to clarify for the Minister precisely why Newcastle receives a higher grant than Wokingham—it is because our needs are higher. Newcastle has four times more children in care, greater homelessness needs, higher council tax support needs and fewer people who are able to self-fund their own elderly care. Compared with Wokingham, Newcastle receives four times as much funding for the statutory concessionary fares scheme, yet it faces costs that are nine times higher due to the sheer number of poorer pensioners who use bus services.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Catherine McKinnell: I am sorry, but I do not have much time to complete my speech.

Where local government finance becomes completely inexplicable is in the fact that Wokingham receives £124 more funding per household than Newcastle for “damping”, or protection against excessive loss of grant. Wokingham will receive an increase next year in resources to protect against excessive grant cuts that is three times greater than that in Newcastle. A system that was originally intended to protect councils from high levels of grant reductions is instead providing more protection to some of the wealthiest councils which have faced the smallest cuts in their spending power.

I suspect that the Minister will also mention the £16 billion in reserves, on which the Secretary of State believes councils are blithely sitting. However, he knows that the £16 billion figure across the country includes £12 billion of reserves that are earmarked for specific purposes, such as funding capital investment commitments in future years, meeting insurance claims, meeting equal pay or redundancy costs, and meeting the cost of flood damage that cannot be claimed under the Bellwin scheme. The latter point is of particular relevance to Newcastle, given the devastating flooding in parts of the city last year.

Indeed, reserves were referred to in the Secretary of State’s somewhat patronising document on 50 “sensible savings” that was published last month. I point out to the Minister that Newcastle city council has already made efficiencies of £100 million over the past three years and has undertaken almost all of the Department’s savings proposals.

In conclusion, Newcastle city council believes that it is in an impossibly difficult situation. Newcastle and other members of the Core Cities Group are having to write to the Secretary of State to inform him that

“there will be no money for anything but social care and refuse collection later in this decade”

unless the current funding plans are changed. The Secretary of State and his Ministers appear complacent, dismissive and even indifferent to the concerns that are being raised.

All I am asking is that they treat Newcastle city council and my constituents with the respect that they deserve and act urgently on their concerns.