Local Government Finances - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:14 pm ar 21 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 1:14, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, in my noble friend Lord Shipley’s excellent opening speech, he mentioned many of the public amenities that are now under immense threat due to this Conservative Government’s starvation of local government. These public assets—community assets—have been built, bought and improved over centuries and decades. I appreciate how lucky I was in my 15 years in local government in Somerset that we were able to plan and construct local amenities. Now, under this Government, starved of resources, local authorities will have little choice but to sacrifice these common assets, be they libraries, green spaces, public toilets or cultural centres.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, just said, once amenities are gone, they are gone. She is right, and it puts me in mind of a well-known poem, written at the time of the Inclosure Acts, and just as relevant today:

“The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose”.

That is just what this Government are doing—they are stealing the common.

These common assets are irreplaceable, and the ones I want to highlight today are libraries. This possibly stems from my time at school and the only post I had—head librarian—led to a career in books. More importantly, libraries are a crucial element for everybody in intellectual levelling up. Nobody has put this better than Bobby Seagull, who many remember as the “University Challenge” champion who went on to become a City whizz-kid and then a maths teacher. He is, especially, a great advocate of libraries, as he explained when he came here to Parliament a while ago:

“Growing up in financially challenging conditions in an east London council estate, our library was a paradise”.

More affluent areas are more likely to still have quality libraries that remain open and well stocked, but deprived areas will suffer multiple deprivations, and libraries will be one of the first of these. The Government are consigning a generation to poorer literacy and lower academic attainment.

Libraries are popular—they have 40 million visits a year, which is more than cinema and football combined. They are one of the most popular services that councils provide. In addition to their central focus on reading and literacy, libraries support a wide range of activities, which was particularly seen during the pandemic, including digital skills, warm hubs, job clubs, and access to financial advice and support. They are the ultimate community resource, yet public library funding in the UK has fallen by more than 30% in total since 2009-10, and 800 libraries have closed. At least 32 councils are exploring very significant cuts or closures—in some cases proposing to close over 65% of their branches. I hope the Minister will not dare to suggest that such cuts are a local government choice. She knows perfectly well that local authorities now have no choice, given that central government has subjected them, year after year, to real-terms cuts.

What answer are the Government giving to the worst-affected local authorities, struggling in the face of ever-diminishing central government funding? They are saying, “Sell off your assets”. The exceptional financial support framework will allow councils involved—I use the word “allow” in inverted commas—to use capital receipts from the sale of assets or borrowing to cover their day-to-day costs of this amount. Traditionally, libraries occupy buildings at the heart of their communities, where land values are higher—making them an obvious option to cash in on short-term capital at the expense of long-term value.

The Financial Times highlighted this recently when it said:

The UK government is now considering loosening the rules for allowing councils to sell off assets. This is bad news for everything from libraries to swimming pools, town halls to toilets”.

We really are in a disgraceful state of affairs. A later verse of the poem I quoted is just as apposite as the first:

“The poor and wretched don’t escape

If they conspire the law to break;

This must be so but they endure

Those who conspire to make the law”.