Local Government Finances - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:32 pm ar 21 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of The Bishop of Manchester The Bishop of Manchester Bishop 1:32, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for securing this important debate, but I am doubly grateful for its full title. This is not simply a debate about local government finances; it is a debate about the impact on local communities, and that is a vital distinction. Money is only ever a means to an end. It is an input—a crucial one—but what really matters are the outcomes and, in terms of local government, what really matters is how well local communities are served.

I still recall that back in the 1990s, when I started attending and speaking at national housing conferences, there were some where every positive mention of housing associations brought an audible hiss from some local authority members who were present. They saw us as rivals, and in some cases even the enemy, as we were taking money that had formerly gone to them to provide services that they had previously enjoyed delivering. I guess their attitude could be summed up as: if a job is worth doing, it is for the public sector to do it. I hope that we have long moved on from those attitudes. Local authorities have a vital and leading part to play in the service of their communities, but they are not the sole provider. Other agencies are not competitors; they are partners in the common task of supporting the local community.

Much of my diocese, as noble Lords will know, falls within the Greater Manchester area. Our mayor, Andy Burnham, understands well that it needs more than just local authorities—indeed, more than just the wider public sector—to pull together if we are to maximise the positive impact we can have for our local communities. So, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority works closely with voluntary, community, faith and social enterprises, and our faith communities work hard to be both visible and distinct. The authority acknowledges that faith-motivated work makes a significant contribution to the well-being of the whole of our communities, regardless of the service users’ faith.

Only last year, the GMCA’s faith and belief advisory panel drafted a statement which drew attention to the variety, visibility and delivery of faith community support in a whole range of areas of social need—things such as homelessness and food security. That initial statement is part of working towards a faith covenant. We are currently drafting one which we hope will be signed by each of the 10 local authorities, along with faith community reps. Faith covenants actually emerged from the APPG on Faith and Society, and I know that they are already operating in areas such as the West Midlands and in Leeds.

Our combined authority has a number of action networks, including the homelessness action network. A youth homelessness report from 2023 showed that at least two community partner agencies are working to resolve individual youth homelessness cases through the pathfinder programmes that have grown out of faith communities. Faith involvement is woven into the whole of the provision of tackling homelessness, including the “A bed every night” scheme, whose target remains to ensure that nobody need sleep rough on our streets. The Greater Manchester Food Security Action Network is a similar story, with 134 food banks and 68 pantries or clubs across Greater Manchester, many of them run by faith communities, including my own local Broughton food pantry run by St James Higher Broughton, which I think has been well-reported here before.

As well as responding to immediate needs, partners recognise that the long-term future prosperity of Greater Manchester depends on our being able to achieve our shared commitment to be carbon net zero by 2038. To that end, our faith leaders—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jain—invited our mayor and other civic leaders to accompany us in a delegation to meet and discuss these matters with Pope Francis and leaders of the international Roman Catholic organisations in Rome last year. That really inspired us to think about how we could better work together as faith and political leaders to achieve our goal.

I have drawn my examples predominantly from the combined authority level, but I could equally mention more local cases, such as the Manchester homelessness partnership board, which I chaired from its inception until recently. That body brings together businesses, charities, and faith and public sector partners to maximise impact on ending homelessness in the city. I could speak of how the housing association that I chaired, Wythenshawe Community Housing Group, provides much of the services for young people in its area, using properties owned by the city council but where that council is no longer able to be the provider. Our emphasis is on synergies and partnerships—on recognising that faith communities deserve a seat at the table for what they already do, and what more they can do.

This debate must be as much about recognition and partnership as it is about sources of funding, but I guess that is where the levels of local authority funding kick in. Noble Lords have spoken, and will no doubt in the rest of this debate speak, of the severe limitations that many are operating under and the rapid rise in Section 114 notices that we have heard about. The danger is that when they are faced with major deficits, councils become tempted to cut back on the vital support they provide to those partner bodies, simply to maintain as much as they can of their own directly provided services. I understand why they want to limit the damaging impact of redundancies among their own staff. The trouble is that those understandable responses tend to maximise rather than minimise the harm being done to local communities.

Noble Lords will also note the negative impact of very short-term funding. Earlier on, I asked a Question about the household support fund and its extension for a mere six months. We debated that this morning, but local authorities and their partner agencies need longer-term certainty so that they can plan and provide. They are not helped by constant fears that funding may end in the very near future. So yes, my speech is a cry for a more generous settlement for local authorities; not so that they can plot a return to the municipalism of former decades, but to allow them to plan and deliver services along with their partner agencies.

The principle that we should come together across all sectors to support and strengthen community life is important at all times, not only when the money is short. Because it is through that partnership working, as I have seen over and over again throughout my adult life, that we begin to see, in big ways and small, not only our communities served better but the revitalisation of our common shared life together.