Between 2001 and 2021 the number of people with learning disabilities is expected to rise by 11%, whilst the number of adults over the age of 65 with learning difficulties is expected to rise by 36% (Emerson and Hatton, 2004). By 2031 the number of adults aged over 65 is expected to rise by 3.8 million (Age UK, 2010), around 18% of whom will require assistance with at least one of their activities of daily life (General Household Survey).
Both of these demographic changes are ones in which the responsibility for action falls squarely on the shoulders of our local councils. Yet most of our councils will soon be incapable of providing basic services and the necessary social care, and the cynicism of the ‘what do I get for my council tax?’ individuals will only increase as budgets do anything but.
The average English council has seen its central government grant cut by 36% (IFS, March 2015). Moreover councils are restricted in the revenue they can raise due to the 2% limit on council tax rises (which calls an unwinnable and costly referendum). Due to this, cuts have been most severe in councils who raise the lowest revenue directly ie have a less affluent population. These can often be the areas with greatest need.
Many an MP and councillor’s office will regularly receive angry correspondence complaining about the reduction in bin collection services, the condition of roads, cuts to arts funding or the mass closure of libraries. This engenders disenchantment with local government, a belief that one pays one’s council tax but receives nothing in return. This will inevitably continue so long as councils rightly prioritise the care of those most in need in our communities above basic services. Kirklees Council in West Yorkshire projects that by 2022 its entire budget will be consumed by social care. The protection of social care from cuts, thus far, suggests that this will be the inevitable result unless their fiscal position changes. One councillor claimed, off the record, that ‘local government is fundamentally changing. Basic services will just not exist in 15 years’.
It is, unjustly, councils who for the most part are held responsible for the cuts to basic services. Yet in reality it is no fault of theirs. They are incapable of raising the funds to prevent these cuts. Most are desperately selling their assets and spending their long-held reserves to mitigate central government cuts, yet the result remains a devastating loss of services.
The extent to which basic services and social care are cut is a choice that our local councils should not be forced to make. They have had the responsibility for this choice imposed on them by the Coalition, and Conservative Governments. The only real local devolution taking place under Cameron’s administrations is the devolution of blame. Central government dictates the cuts and councils are provided with an unbearable and unnecessary choice. The government needs to be held to account for what is being done to our communities – not our local councils. We need real devolution and a real alternative. Only that can stop the most vulnerable in our society and those in despair of our political system from falling through the cracks.