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South Yorkshire councils feel the strain after a decade of underfunding

Councils in the poorest parts of the UK have faced cuts almost three times greater than those in wealthier areas.

Broomhill shops
Rachel Rae Photography

A new report has highlighted the strain on services that councils in Yorkshire and the Humber (Y&H) currently face, after a decade of underfunding and uneven budget cuts from central government.

The statistics come from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, who publish an annual review of complaints made about council services across the country.

They show that the ombudsman's office upheld 230 public complaints about councils in Y&H, with 28% of them being about children's services and education – above the national average of 24%.

They also reveal that 17% of complaints in Y&H were about adult care services, compared to 13% nationally, but that the proportion relating to housing (9%) were lower than the national average (15%).

"Our latest statistics shed light on the harsh realities people across the country face in crucial aspects of their lives," said ombudsman Paul Najsarek. "Council leaders now need to focus on learning from common faults and injustices so they can make a significant difference to the people our local authorities serve."

But calls from the ombudsman for individual politicians to improve services did not make reference to the onslaught on local authority finances that has taken place over the past decade.

Funding for councils across the UK, but especially those in more deprived areas, has been slashed since the start of the austerity programme in 2010. Local authority ‘spending power’ fell on average by 10.2% between 2009-10 and 2021-22.

Research by SIGOMA, a Barnsley-based body representing urban councils, found that those in the poorest 10% of areas have experienced cuts almost three times larger than councils in the richest 10% of areas.

The poorest councils in England have on average experienced a 28.3% cut to their budgets over the past 13 years, while the richest councils have only experienced a 10.1% cut on average.

Most of the richest councils that have seen the smallest cuts to their budgets are run by the Conservatives, who have also been in power nationally since 2010.

The huge decline in spending power is primarily because the grant that all councils receive from central government has been cut. According to The Institute for Government (IFG), cuts have fallen disproportionally on the poorest councils because of the way central government allocates funding.

"Grant funding was cut by a uniform percentage across all local authorities in the first half of the 2010s, but because grant funding made up a greater proportion of more deprived local authorities’ funding compared to less deprived authorities, this approach meant that their spending power fell by more," they explain.

Wealthier councils rely on this central government grant for a smaller share of their overall income because they make more money from council tax and business rates than those in poorer areas.

The gap between councils in the richest areas and the poorest areas has narrowed slightly since 2020 due to a series of one-off grants that have been made primarily to the poorest local authorities since the pandemic.

But the IFG say these one-off uplifts have not been made permanent since they do not "include any longer term changes for allocating funding, reducing the likelihood of more equitable grant distribution across local authorities in future finance settlements."

"The system needs serious reform," said SIGOMA chair and Barnsley Council leader Stephen Houghton.

“The poorest areas have seen the biggest cuts and for “levelling up” to mean anything the government should be looking to reverse these cuts and create a funding formula that funds according to council needs.”

This relentless series of funding cuts is reflected in the complaints about council services outlined in the ombudsman's new report. In Sheffield, the body has upheld public complaints about street trees, adult social care and the treatment of children with special educational needs.

All of these are what is known as 'statutory services', meaning that local councils have a legal duty to provide them, even if their funding has been cut.

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