UNISON opinion: Why councils are on the brink – and how they can be pulled back

Everyone knows why councils are on the brink of bankruptcy – a massive 41% cut in government funding over a decade, while demand for services has grown. But there is an alternative for a sustainable future for the local services we all rely on

Bolton Council building

By UNISON’s head of local government Mike Short

Local government is in the news. But not for the right reasons.

The Daily Mail asks “Is your council about to go bust?”, the Mirror tells us that every single local authority, bar one, is experiencing cuts to funding and the Guardian reports that councils are resorting to crowdfunding to maintain their schools.

We hear about the youth clubs that have closed and the Christmas lights that won’t be switched on. Each day there’s news that another council can’t balance the books, more services are being cut or closed down and jobs are on the line.

And every single cut and closure has an impact.

It’s not surprising that councils are on the brink of bankruptcy. They’ve faced thirteen years of significant reductions to their funding.

By 2019 councils had 41% less government income than they did in 2010, all this while demand for services is growing.

There are more people who need social care, more young people who need extra support in schools, more people who don’t even have a home to live in.

UNISON’s research shows the extent of these cuts. Over a thousand council-operated youth centres have closed. Even more council operated children and family centres have closed since 2010.

Around 800 council libraries have closed. Each of these represents a place where people could find support, advice and information, places to learn, create social connections. With violent crime soaring and vaccination rates dropping youth centres and family centres are more, not less, important than ever before.

UNISON has a vision for local government. Good local government should be the foundation of a good society, ensuring that each neighbourhood has the facilities and amenities for a decent quality of life.

We need well-maintained roads and pavements, well-lit streets to help ensure safety at night, parks and playgrounds, leisure centres and libraries for everyone to access regardless of income and age.

Local government should be based on democracy, run by local politicians who can be held accountable for the services in their area.

Good local government can make such a difference – support for the most disadvantaged and isolated like day centres for the elderly and disabled, holiday schemes for young people, advice for refugees and refuges for survivors of domestic violence.

That is why UNISON is prioritising our campaign for better local government. We are calling for local authorities across the whole of the UK, to be well funded by central government, so that they are to be able to provide the high quality services that we all need in our communities.

Councils should be able to employ people doing this valuable work on secure, decent, well-paid contracts so that they are valued, recognised and well-rewarded for the important work they do.

Local government is the key to creating a sustainable and fairer future – to greening our towns, to reaching net-zero targets through insulation, better public transport and waste – and ensuring that regional disparity is a thing of the past. It’s the key to creating inclusive communities – ones in which young people can develop and thrive.

If you value these services then please write to your MP, MSP or Senedd member to call for more urgently needed council funding via our campaign action site.