The Autumn Statement: my response

I had hopes for the Autumn Statement. The Local Government Association and Surrey County Council had talked up the massive funding gap to local councils and social care, which is making 4% a year council tax rise the new normal. And the UK government had, just a week ago ratified the Paris Climate Change Agreement. I heard the words ‘fiscal reset’ and ‘new chancellor’ and hoped this might indicate a change of direction in response to the concerns raised by Councils.

But the Autumn Statement did not do anything to address the growing gap in care budgets, now sitting at £2.6 billion as highlighted by the Local Government Association. Meanwhile Scope highlighted how there has been no respite for those with disabilities, with for cuts to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) continuing in April. This means the 30% point ‘disability employment gap, is likely to continue, as with growing pressure on the lives of the most vulnerable people in our community. After five years of austerity, it’s set to continue for a further ten. The Chancellor’s promise to help those ‘just about managing’ was not matched by reality.

Surrey County Council says it’s being ‘squeezed dry’ as it has overspent by £15 million pounds on social care, failing to balance its budget this year. Deeper cuts are in the pipeline. But Surrey’s situation is nowhere as severe as that of Liverpool or Lancaster, which calculates it won’t be able to fund its minimum required services. The Government should not spend put more money into transport infrastructure (e.g. roadbuilding) while Councils can’t even afford to deliver the minimum services to vulnerable people.

There was a small improvement, with some new spending allocated for new homes for housing associations. Prior to 2010, Raven Housing Trust received £100,000 for each new socially rented home – the Con-Dem coalition government cut this to £16,000, and instead of providing enough money to build truly-affordable homes created the ‘New Homes Bonus’, rewarding councils for the homes the private sector were building anyway.

This U-turn back to increased funding for what used to be called council housing is welcome, but still nowhere near enough. This will not address the massive affordability-gap in Reigate and Banstead which like London’s wider housing market has house prices of 14 times average earnings.

A better strategy to provide sustainable, affordable homes for all who need them is needed and create sustainable economies across the UK is needed. That would be the reverse of the proposals in the Autumn Statement to prioritise money for road building and other infrastructure and big business. The 33% rise in spending on roads and other infrastructure (£23 billion)[1] and extra £6.7 billion in corporation tax cuts[2] will help London grow (increasing pressure on London’s Green Belt) and not help to revitalise communities that are falling behind across the UK. Together with the proposed Heathrow airport expansion, these proposals will continue to produce more London-centred growth that leaves much of the rest of the UK, and the rural economy, behind.

The Autumn Statement left the environment behind too. It froze fuel duty (costing nearly a £1 billion a year) and gave a similar increase for road building – more than five times that proposed for flood defences. There was no change to subsidies for oil exploration and fracking.

So the Autumn Statement lacked a commitment to adequate funding for Councils, including for social care. And in terms of a better strategy for future development and tackling climate change, it was silent.

 

[1] Alongside billions already committed to renew Trident nuclear submarines (£205 billion), build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point (£18 billion, creating up to 4,500 jobs in France) and HS2 (phase 1: £56 billion).

[2] As well as continued pledges to tackle only a tiny fraction of the estimated £125+ billion tax evasion and avoidance and uncollected tax in the UK.

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