“Local Government on life support”

“Almost all councils in England plan to increase council tax from April and three-quarters intend to raise it above 2.75%, research reveals. Most councils have also warned they will still be reducing a range of services, from adult social care to libraries and recycling, while raising charges and fees.

The Local Government Information Unit thinktank says eight years of austerity have cost English councils 40% of their central funding. Last week Somerset and Northamptonshire county councils reversed winter gritting cuts amid outcry when untreated roads caused car accidents, while unrepaired potholes and cuts to libraries have grated with residents.

“Years of chronic underfunding has left local government on life support,” said the chief executive of the thinktank, Dr Jonathan Carr-West. The local government ministry says councils are to receive an extra £1bn in the coming year.”


“Millions more on incomes too low to have acceptable living standards – study”

“Two million more people are on incomes considered too low to have an “acceptable” standard of living compared with 10 years ago, new research has found.

A study by Loughborough University suggested three quarters of lone parent families had earnings too low to meet their minimum needs – up by 65% since the financial crisis in 2008.

And the number of single women in their early 60s – a group affected by an increase to the state pension age – living below the minimum standard of living was found to have doubled in the last decade.

The University’s Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP) conducted the research as part of its Minimum Income Standards programme, which calculates the minimum budget individuals require to cover their material needs and to participate in society.

Its findings suggested that, compared to 2008, two in five women aged 60-64 who live alone have incomes too low to meet their minimum needs, up from one in five. …”


“Local authorities forced to cut council tax support sees surge in unpaid tax bills” (well, duh!)

“Around 90% of English councils have been forced cut council tax support for working age claimants, meaning many low-income households have fallen behind with their council tax bills, according to new research.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has highlighted the impact of the government’s decision to abolish the centralised council tax support (CTS) for low-income households in 2013, which has seen an extra 1.3 million working-age households sent a council tax bill.

Nearly five million households received localised tax support in 2017-18, costing local authorities a total of £4.1bn – and 2.4 million working-age people received support, with an average benefit of £770 per year.
But the IFS has estimated that councils have failed to collect one-quarter of the extra council tax that low-income households have been billed as a result of the funding cuts.

This explosion of unpaid council tax is around 10 times higher than the 2.5% of council tax uncollected by local authorities under the old CTS system.

CTS schemes have also continued to become less generous since they have suffered funding cuts and were brought under local council control – and the report reveals that low-income households in poor parts of England are more likely to have been affected than those in affluent areas.

Director of welfare at the Nuffield Foundation, Mark Franks, said: “The fact that local authorities are unable to collect around one quarter of the additional council tax they have asked for indicates that support schemes are not working as effectively as they could.

“This important research should help in reviewing the design of council tax support schemes and the benchmarks they are based on.”

The report stated that giving people an entirely new bill is what seems so problematic with this type of tax collection.

Thomas Pope, one of the authors of the report and an IFS researcher, commented: “Many low-income households do not pay this new bill, almost regardless of its size. From their point of view, these changes have clearly increased problems with council tax arrears.

“From councils’ point of view, they are likely to receive significantly more council tax if they increase bills for those already paying some council tax than if they try to raise the same extra money from those who currently have no bill to pay.”


“Asthma rising among ‘generation rent’ as damp and mould boost emergency hospital visits, experts say”

Eat or heat …

Generation rent” is suffering worsening levels of asthma because of the deteriorating quality of housing, a new report suggests.

A survey of 10,000 sufferers found that “millennials” – those aged between 18 and 29 – are now twice as likely to be hospitalised as a result of the respiratory condition than those in their 60s.

Experts at Asthma UK, who compiled the report, said younger people with asthma are now at greater risk because of increased difficulties finding good-quality housing without mould and damp problems.

Figures from the charity indicate a deteriorating picture for millennial asthma sufferers, of whom only 25 per cent where receiving basic care in 2016 …”

(pay wall)

“This Is What It’s Like To Lose Your Sunday Bus Service”

In a new series, HuffPost UK is examining how shrinking local budgets are affecting people’s daily lives. These are stories of what it’s like to lose, in a society that is quietly changing. If you have a story to tell, email basia.cummings@huffpost.com.

“When Staffordshire council announced on April 1 that they were cutting the local Sunday bus service – a lifeline for many of its regular passengers – people thought it was a bad joke.

The route was a thread connecting the local community, linking Stafford and Cannock in the West Midlands. But it was no April Fool’s Day prank.

Like so many decisions taken by local authorities in the era of austerity, it made sense on paper. Staffordshire County Council said it could no longer keep the buses running because numbers had dropped so much, the subsidies needed to make up for the loss in fares were “simply not sustainable”.

The local bus operator, Arriva Midlands, said at the time that “cuts to funding” were forcing them to withdraw the subsidised service. According to county council cabinet member Mark Deaville, “some journeys are costing taxpayers £10 a time”.

On its own, of course, the cutting of this one bus route is not worthy of a national news report. It is, at best, a local story affecting a relatively small number of people. But it is in paying closer attention to thousands of small financial decisions like this that we see the reality of government-led austerity, and the way it is quietly changing Britain.

In our HuffPost UK series, What It’s Like To Lose, we are exploring how these changes at a local level link up to paint a national portrait of austerity – from the closures of community libraries, or the centralisation of medical services or job centres, to the disappearance of affordable leisure centres or local post offices. As local authorities find themselves picking off the “low-hanging fruit” of services that have seen their use go down in recent years, what does it mean if you are one of the people for whom that still really matters?

When we visited Cannock on a grey December day, standing at a bus shelter was 80-year-old Jocie Lucas, taking refuge from the driving rain. For her, the cut was a blow to her sense of freedom. “I have a free bus pass, but I’m so confused these days as to when the buses are running that I hardly use it now,” she said. “I’ve lost some of that independence to travel where and when I want, and now I have to rely on lifts from family.”

What has happened to the residents of Cannock is happening across the country. Buses remain by far the country’s most popular form of public transport – 4.65 billion journeys are made each year, two-and-a-half times more than on the train.

But despite their levels of use, almost 17,000 bus routes have disappeared over five years across the UK, according to the Traffic Commissioner’s annual report. Tightened council budgets have made services that were under-used, but previously considered essential, vulnerable to cuts. The Campaign for Better Transport says there has been a £182m – or 45% – cut in local authority-supported bus services since 2010.

In Staffordshire, like in many councils across the UK, the changes came following a funding consultation last year. Tanya Dance, who runs the Copper Kettle cafe overlooking Cannock’s bus depot, was particularly hard hit by the decision – she had become a bus ticket vendor just months before the Sunday services were cancelled.

“There used to be queues of passengers on a Sunday, which was one on my busiest days,” she said. “A lot of the old folk with their free bus passes would only venture out on a Sunday and spend time shopping and in my cafe.”

Dance said the move has seen her takings halve in the last eight months. And the disruption, she thinks, has mainly affected her elderly customers.

For them, the service was vital. It was the only opportunity many of them had to go out and socialise, or visit church, she said. “To stop all buses on a Sunday seems way too drastic. Cannock isn’t exactly isolated but its pretty rural and buses are a lifeline for many around here,” she said.

Jocie Lucas echoes this, saying she used to enjoy travelling into town on a Sunday. “Now and I’m in other people’s hands, so that takes away some of the fun.”

But it’s not just the elderly who have had to adjust. Teenagers Alicia Slyde and Dean Mayo, both from a suburb of Cannock, said they now have to walk 45 minutes to get to town. “Sunday is the only day I can go shopping because of work commitments in the week and neither of us drive or can afford a cab, so we walk it to town and back now,” Mayo said. “It’s hard work carrying all the shopping home but we have no choice. “

Slyde added: “The bus service around here is dreadful during the week and then non-existent on a Sunday. Even getting to college every day is hit-and-miss as far as buses go. But stopping the Sunday service just doesn’t make sense. That’s the one day people get to themselves and want to travel.”

More than 2,000 people have signed a petition started by local campaigner Lee Murphy, asking the council to reverse its decision. Some of those who have signed mentioned nurses and staff working at local care homes needing to get to work.

Murphy told HuffPost UK that a regular user of one of the Cannock services relies on it to reach his brother, who is disabled. “He still requires the same care on Sundays, but how is he able to travel to him? Both Cannock and Stafford hospitals are cut off – neither train station are close enough,” the campaigner said.

“In addition to this, users paying as much as £520 a year for a Cannock/Stafford region bus pass will receive less value for money. This is unfair to hard-working commuters who deserve to use their pass for evenings and weekends too.”

Kevin Chapman, a spokesman for the Better Transport campaign, said the vast majority of the lost routes serve rural communities, like Cannock. “When the local bus service goes this often results in people in these areas becoming more isolated,” he said. “We are faced with a nasty cocktail of reduced funding for councils and operators cutting routes, while in the middle of it all we have vulnerable people who may rely on the bus to get out and about.”

But as always, decisions to cut services are complex. Staffordshire County Councillor Mark Deaville said the money saved had been directed to the services people use the most. “Our changes affect only four subsidised Sunday services from the Cannock depot, and the decision to stop all of its other Sunday bus journeys is a commercial decision for Arriva and not the county council.”

In Staffordshire, one local MP is the defence secretary and former government chief whip, Gavin Williamson, who said he is extremely concerned about the removal of the Cannock service, which he described as a “lifeline”.

Speaking to HuffPost UK, the senior Tory said it is “deeply damaging for the elderly who may rely on the buses to get them to the shops or to and from church on a Sunday,” he said. “It is important we do all we can to fight these cuts and I hope Arriva reconsider their decision.”

Teenage commuter Esme Walker, agrees. She said living in Cannock already felt “like being out in the sticks”, and losing the Sunday bus service has isolated her further.

“Me and my friends looked forward to catching a bus on Sunday and spending the day in Birmingham or Stafford,” she said. “It was really nice because we’d often meet elderly people from the town on the bus who seemed just as bored as us and we’d end up travelling together.

“I think the buses helped bring local people together in that way.”


Austerity: Death by a thousand (local) cuts

“Brexit is one of the great issues – and news stories – of our time. But austerity, now nearly a decade old, has been just as transformative – in a slow, attritional way that is all too easy to overlook.

The reality is a picture of a thousand small decisions taken in grey council meeting rooms, a thousand deductions from spreadsheets, and countless lives quietly made a little worse. Sexy news copy and television report material it is not.

And while it would be wrong to say the bigger picture hasn’t received a lot of coverage over the past eight years, the real-life impact is rarely “news”. These small stories seldom pass muster in newsrooms where reporters pitching ideas are asked by their editors daily: “But is it new?”

Meanwhile at a local level, councils faced with impossible budgetary decisions are having to make hard choices. So how do we mark the slow, incremental, and sometimes devastating disappearance of local services? How do we serve our readers by making sure our coverage reflects what they see where they live?

This is why HuffPost UK is devoting a week of coverage on the impact of local cuts – properly local cuts. In this series, What It’s Like To Lose, we have stepped away from considerations about what is traditionally “newsworthy”, ignoring the usual measures of scale, to look at some of the holes left in communities over the past few years, and to write about things that people tell us are important to them.

The fact is that the closure of a single leisure centre, or a library, is a local issue. If the council stops cutting the grass in your park, or doesn’t mend the swings that have been broken for a month, you don’t expect to see it on the News at Ten. And these cuts are often enacted by people working hard to make the least-worst decision. Do we consider a mother-and-baby swimming class or a judo club as essential a service as keeping streetlights on, or collecting rubbish?

When Birmingham Council recently decided to no longer employ lollipop ladies, they did so in order to prioritise other services. In narrow terms, the logic might have seemed inescapable. But with that, a familiar feature of the landscape of British childhoods is gone in one city. Where will it be gone next?

So to pay closer attention, and to understand the ways in which austerity is linked to wider political issues, we’ve spoken to an old lady whose bus into town on a Sunday has been discontinued, and a teenager who won’t travel further afield to a sexual health clinic area after the one nearby was closed. We’ve spoken to people who have to travel miles to their local job centre, or who are missing their leisure centre and can’t find an affordable alternative.

And while this can only be a snapshot of the nationwide reality, we’ve found that the stories that matter to one person can tell us something about what it’s like to lose that ought to matter to all of us, in a society that is quietly changing.”


Here is the first of those stories:

‘Let them eat spuds!’ Ex-UKIP candidate says food banks are fuelling the obesity crisis

Owl says: Of course she is right: the poor should be using their Range Rovers to get to farm shops for their sacks of potatoes … and should be using their outdoor barbecues to roast them, seeing as they don’t have enough money to use their ovens – and bags of charcoal can also be put in the Range Rover’s capacious boot! Really, these so-called poor people need a good talking to and must pull up their (darned) socks!

And no, they shouldn’t be bothering our hard-pressed doctors with their vitamin-deficiencies when little Arabella needs to have her ballet sprain massaged!

“The former UKIP parliamentary candidate for Great Yarmouth claims that food banks are contributing to obesity and that the poor “cannot be bothered” to cook.

Writing online for The Conservative Woman, Catherine Blaiklock argues that no-one in Britain should be starving because potatoes are cheap at her farm shop and living on nothing but boiled potatoes would be healthier than being handed a box of products in tins and packets.

Addressing claims that millions of people struggle to put food on the table she compares the plight of Britain’s poorest families with the Sherpas in the Himalayas who eat “practically nothing but boiled potatoes with a bit of salt and chilli on the side.”

“You get bored with both the eating and peeling long before you could possibly get obese,” she adds.

The column carries the headline Hungry? Let them eat spuds! echoing the words supposedly spoken by Marie Antoinette when she learned the peasants had no bread.

It goes on to argue that it is not the cost of food that is the problem but the people who consume it.

Catherine Blaiklock stood for the far-right Eurosceptic party in Yarmouth in 2017.

Described at the time as running a guest house in Lingwood, near Acle, she took a photograph of her black husband to a hustings in an apparent bid to prove the party is not racist.”