A state of crisis in local government

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2019 Local Government Service Group Conference
21 February 2019
Carried as Amended

UNISON Wales has been highlighting the damage being done to our communities through our Fair Funding campaign and Wales audit of austerity work which has highlighted that councils have lost over 28,000 jobs since 2010.

The budget given to local authorities is an investment in local services, in prevention and early intervention work which ensures that councils can continue to make a positive difference to their residents’ lives. It also helps to ensure the reduction of pressures on the rest of the public sector, to save money for the public purse, and to contribute to the wide prosperity and wellbeing of our nation.

It would assist all local authorities if Welsh government did not enact new legislation with initial grant funding which is then later withdrawn and not included in a settlement budget. Welsh government needs to stop pitting public services against each other. Local government services are as important to communities as the NHS; we need to protect the education of our children, the care of our elderly and other vulnerable sections of our society. Welsh government needs to deliver a sustainable funding settlement for local government. Unprecedented funding pressures and demand for key services are pushing councils to the brink, with the extinction of some services.

Local government has sustained disproportionately large reductions to its funding over this decade, in comparison with the rest of the public sector. The financial viability of some councils is now under threat and many are becoming increasingly unable to ensure the provision of dignified care for our elderly and disabled, protect and educate our children, boost economic growth within their communities, fill potholes, keep green spaces accessible or build homes and collect rubbish.

Unless councils have an increase in their financial settlement from Welsh government, then many will reach the point where they only have the funds to deliver their statutory responsibilities and it will be our local communities and economies that will suffer the consequences. Council staff work hard to deliver services to those most in need, but it is becoming increasingly difficult.

Using Neath Port Talbot council as an example, when scrutinising draft budget for consultation 2019/20 proposals, it is evident that some service provision is going to be drastically affected with the loss of the Minority Ethnic Achievement Service, which will have a detrimental impact on all children with English or Welsh as a second language, as well as affecting children’s attainment moving forward and their productivity within the communities that they live. Neath Port Talbot schools will lose teachers due to the Westminster agreed pay deal, the cost of which has not been included in the budget settlements. Neath Port Talbot Council will need to reduce the costs of residential care, and in doing so will limit the available options to our elderly and vulnerable residents at a time when we need to minimise the disruption in their lives.

In June 2018, UNISON’s local government service group executive conducted a government-wide survey on the impact of cuts to local councils and the work carried out by council workers. The results are indicative of a crisis in social work, with social workers describing their work as “in a state of crisis”, and we believe that policy-makers in Welsh government should take note that 8 out of 10 social workers are working unpaid overtime in order to keep their service going, and over half are thinking of leaving their profession for something less stressful.

The situation in social work finds itself in is complex. From a lack of resource within the service itself, to the impact of wider austerity on social services, the problems are multi-fold – but the solution is more straightforward. It is clear that the under-financing of social services, and the wider community services that social workers rely on, is crippling the system. The lack of preventative services will lead to crisis across all sections of public provision. With an ever increasing focus on budget needs, rather than the needs of service users, social workers describe the loss of a “person-centred” approach. The shortfall in the funding of adult social care has had an impact on the ability to support hospital discharges. Social work depends on access to a multitude of services, and cuts to these services are undermining the work that social workers do. Staff refer to a lack of voluntary, charitable and private sector services to refer service users to due to funding cuts. These include clubs for disabled children, youth clubs, hostels, counselling and mental health services, parent groups, youth groups and children’s centres.

The crisis in the benefits system is adding further strain. Universal credit roll-out has seen a rise in homelessness and increased poverty. In some cases, families are being relocated to other counties when facing homelessness. Cuts to other public services such as policing means longer waiting times for social workers who may be dealing with violent individuals, putting both the social worker and the user at risk, another example of public service funding deficit.

In UNISON’s survey, when asked what they believed the biggest challenges facing the employer, members highlighted the following areas to highlight their top concerns: Adult Social Care; Cuts to Youth Services; Lack of Housing Options’, Safeguarding Children and Young People. When asked to comment about how cuts are affect their jobs, social work staff refer to “Work has become solely reactive rather than being able to plan well and make the best use of resources. The situation feels like an overstretched piece of elastic that’s about to snap!”

The Westminster government needs to act now to end austerity and restore public sector funding levels to their 2010 level to allow the Welsh Government to address this situation before we have failures in the system. We cannot sustain the well-being of our communities without a much needed cash injection into local authorities, to fund the new duties and responsibilities that Welsh government has legislated for. Should this fail to materialise, then we are warning of significant failures in the systems within local authorities, putting residents across Wales at significant risk.

With the uncertainty of Brexit looming, and the financial implications, predicted food and medicine shortages, communities will be ever more reliant on public service provision which is a citizenship issue, not only a local government concern.

We therefore call on the service group executive to:

1)Highlight the damage that Tory austerity policies are having across the UK, in particular the drastic effect that slashing local government funding is having on our communities; by conducting a UK wide audit of austerity which can be used in our campaigns to evidence the blight that austerity is having on our communities.

2)Lobby the UK and devolved governments for appropriate fair funding for local government and public services generally

3)Engage elected members at all levels of UK and devolved governments