‘Essential services are crumbling before our eyes’

Christina McAnea tells UNISON’s local government conference that a Labour government ‘absolutely must’ deal with the council cash crisis

                                                            Christina McAnea in Brighton. Image: Steve Forrest

UNISON’s local government conference opened in Brighton yesterday with an urgent call to a likely Labour government to rescue services that are suffering from “a disastrous funding crisis.”

General secretary Christina McAnea told delegates: “If Labour get elected, they will have to deal with the mess that is local government. They will have to deal with the fact that our essential services are crumbling before our eyes.”

Councils are facing a funding deficit of £6.2bn over the next two years, with an increasing number filing for bankruptcy. One in five council leaders think they will be bankrupt within 15 months.

On Saturday, UNISON released new research showing that huge cuts to youth services could create a “lost generation” of young people unable to access vital services at a critical time in their lives. Funding cuts have led to the closure of more than two thirds of council-run youth centres in England and Wales since 2010 – with the loss of so many facilities, and the specialist workers who run them, putting teenagers at risk.

And today, more research will be published that shows that more than a third (38%) of council-run children’s centres have been closed across England since 2010, with the situation only due to get worse as town halls struggle to avoid bankruptcy.

“Of course this has hit deprived areas and disadvantaged families the hardest,” Ms McAnea said. “We know that the Tory austerity plan – and it was a deliberate plan – has meant incredible hardship and a legacy from which some communities may never recover.”

The general secretary noted that while the government blames local mismanagement by Labour councils for their malaise, Tory authorities are also suffering, “because the reality is that the fault lies with 14 years of Tory mismanagement, 14 years of a Tory Government that has systematically and deliberately under-funded local councils.

“Our members are committed to the services they provide – supporting the most vulnerable, educating our children, keeping our local communities safe and healthy.

“It’s the Tory Government that has put all of this at risk – and it’s time for a change.”

L-R: Christina McAnea, Lisa Thomas, Alys Exley-Smith, Ramon Hutchingson, Glen Williams
Day one of conference saw the presentation of UNISON’s local service champions awards 2024. L-R: Christina McAnea, runner-up Lisa Thomas, winner Alys Exley-Smith, runner-up Ramon Hutchingson, Glen Williams

“If Labour wins the general election, one of their first big crises will be how to deal with local government funding. I know they can’t reverse all the cuts overnight. But we do need to see real investment in public services, in particular in local government. And a fairer funding system, moving on from the way the Tories have favoured areas where they’re strong, at the expense of more economically challenged Labour-run areas.

“Local government needs more certainty, with longer-term funding settlements, so councils can plan for the future.”

Ms McAnea assured delegates: “I make this case every single time I speak to the Labour Party. And I give you my word that I will not give up pushing this when Labour comes into government. To say they must – they absolutely must – deal with the crisis in local government.

“But conference, make no mistake – we have to get the Tories out. Our members cannot afford five more years of plummeting living standards. Our public services cannot sustain five more years of cuts. And our communities cannot afford five more years of decline and division.”

Glen Williams

Her views were mirrored by Glen Williams (above), chair of the local government service group executive, who was eager to ensure that Labour stick to its manifesto promises.

Presenting the local government annual report to conference, Mr Williams said that if Labour wins power, there can be “no dilution, no compromise” in the party’s proposed New Deal for Working People, with its many promises to boost workers’ pay and conditions.

Mr Williams spoke of the fact that local government pay has lost 30% of its real value under the Tories, observing that “Pay cut after pay cut after pay cut is like being burgled, every year for 14 years.”

The union is currently consulting local government members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on the latest NJC pay offer, with the executive recommending that they reject it.

Images: Steve Forrest