Coronavirus days part 7: Bad equations

Maths was not my favourite subject at school, mainly because I wasn’t that good at it, but even I can recognise a bad equation when I see one.

Last week, Windsor and Maidenhead announced it was poised to become only the second local authority this century to, essentially, file for bankruptcy. Doing this leads to ceasing all nonessential spend but permits “expenditure required to deliver the council’s provision of statutory services at a minimum possible level.”

Photo of Steve Scown
Steve Scown, Dimensions CEO, blogs

Minimum. Possible.

We know what Minimum Possible looks like. Northampton in 2018, issued a Section 114 notice. Here’s a selection of headlines from the local paper in the weeks afterwards:

  • “Public safety is at risk because of stop on Northamptonshire County Council spending, says police commissioner”
  • “County MPs ‘have no faith in leadership of Northamptonshire County Council’ and want Government to take over”
  • “70 per cent of the council’s spend is through contracts with third party suppliers. [We will] review all of these contracts against the new priorities…[there will be] painful but necessary decisions.”
  • “102 young Northamptonshire people face future living in care homes”
  • “… learning disability services targeted in Northamptonshire County Council savings”
  • “…councillors [are] grilling officers over savings in services for adults with learning disabilities.”

So we know the consequences of a Section 114 – they turn lives upside down. As a minimum, we should expect (formally or otherwise) higher eligibility thresholds for social care, and a focus on the absolute lowest price.

I would most certainly not wish a loved one of mine to be in need of social care in a Section 114 council. Are there any fans of cheap large scale institutional care facilities out there just now? Thought not.

And Northampton’s Section 114 was before the impacts of battling Coronavirus and the looming recession. In case your memory doesn’t stretch back to early March, the aim of the Coronavirus Act was to support Councils to get through the pandemic. It includes regressive measures such as:

  • Removal of the requirement for a local authority to undertake needs assessments
  • Removal of the requirement for a local authority to meet assessed needs if resources and priorities make this necessary.
  • Detain people under the Mental Health Act using just one doctor’s opinion
  • Allowing delayed decisions on NHS Continuing healthcare

The Coronavirus Act is intended to help LAs get through the pandemic in one piece, not to help them balance the books in the longer term. Should we be pleased to see that only 8 local authorities have taken the opportunities offered by the Act and triggered the easements?

Could the Coronavirus Act come to be viewed as a testing ground for a far more limited set of statutory obligations in future?

Not a day goes past without our daily press briefing listing more local authorities going public with their warnings of more cuts on the way. It used to be easy to identify a local authority in trouble their balance sheets showing an unsustainable consumption of reserves and a fire sale of their assets. In essence a strategy of paying for today by mortgaging tomorrow as a means of getting through austerity, hoping for a sensible and sustainable funded system for local government.

Things are changing – those that were previously in trouble have remained there, of course. But Councils with traditionally secure sources of income – for example from tourism, or from business rates – have found these sources of funding have abruptly dried up. Again, a glance at this week’s newspaper headlines is enlightening:

  • Haringey Council estimates coronavirus financial hit of £70m
  • Bolton council says the coronavirus crisis has cost it £33m
  • Dorset Council overspending £1m every week
  • County Durham faces £50million shortfall as crisis hits council coffers
  • Liverpool’s combined authority has warned its funding gap could hit £250m

North, South, East and West, councils of all political persuasions are facing up to an estimated £3.4bn hole in their finances, even after funding injections from central government. We know that sixteen have discussed issuing a Section 114 already – and those are the ones we know about.

The equation is bleak and, I am afraid, the public goodwill we’ve seen in recent weeks towards keyworkers will not on its own change the maths.

So what can we do – as a starter for ten Demand the government fulfil its manifesto commitment to cross party talks on the future of social care?

In its 2019 manifesto, the government gave itself 100 days from the election to launch its cross party talks on social care. We have gone past 180 days and are still waiting …

Whether you lead a social care organisation, or have a family member in receipt of support, you can make a difference. Write to your MP. Mobilise others. Make sure our parliamentarians are in no doubt that cross party talks must start now.