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Has Devon been 'levelled down'?

Wednesday, 22 November 2023 09:17

By Bradley Gerrard, local democracy reporter

How much is this now worth? (image courtesy: Christopher Bill/Unsplash)

Opposition parties prepare for Autumn Statement

Opposition politicians from across Devon are hoping at least some of their wish list will be met by the chancellor Jeremy Hunt when he gives his Autumn Statement.

Affordable housing, funding for infrastructure including roads, and greater visibility on funding are among the key requests from local politicians ahead of the chancellor’s statement this afternoon (Wednesday 22 November).

Devon’s Liberal Democrat leader Julian Brazil (Kingsbridge) called for any support for the county’s children’s and adult social services, but also highlighted affordable housing as a significant problem.

“The lack of affordable housing has a massive knock-on effect on the economy,” he said.

“The misery for people that can’t get on the housing ladder is stark, and that also has an impact on the ability of employers to hire employees, including in relation to key workers such as teachers, nurses, and dentists, as well as the leisure industry.”

He urged Mr Hunt to devolve further planning powers to local authorities, suggesting that central government should scrap rules that dictate how many homes local councils need to build.

Frank Biederman (Fremington Rural), leader of the independent group of councillors in Devon, said he was “fed up” with talk of levelling up, and that this needed to be addressed.

“The reality is Devon has been levelled down over the last 13 years,” he said.

“Devon County Council gets 51 per cent in real terms less in government grant compared to 2010, with the vast majority of the budget going on statutory services like children’s social care and adult social care, where the demand also keeps going up, as well as the cost.

“We really are in a perilous position.”

He added that he wanted the chancellor to announce a long-term funding settlement that would address the council’s shortfall and “allow us to plan our budgets properly for future years”.

“The public are fed up with paying more in council tax, to see less being delivered, especially in terms of road and footpath maintenance,” he added.

Local government finances are under pressure, with some believing that local decisionmakers are put in more challenging situations due to changes in the way Westminster supports councils.

Devon’s revenue support grant – central government funding that can be used on any service – has dropped to £500,000 from £140 million in 2009.  However, other sources of funding from parliament have risen recently.

A Devon County Council spokesperson said it is important to view this figure in the context of a “fundamental national shift” that had moved from national grant funding to giving local authorities the ability to raise money locally.

“The simplest figures show that our overall core government funding in 2010/11 was £284 million,” the spokesperson said.

“As the national austerity drive bit, this reduced to £153 million in 2019/20. It’s now £235 million for 2023/24.

“In the same period, total council tax income received by the county council has grown from £323million in 2010/11 to £492 million in 2023/24.”

Labour leader Carol Whitton (St David’s and Haven Banks), fears the chancellor might seek to reduce the nation’s benefits bill by altering the level of payouts.

“From my perspective, and I think many of my colleagues would agree, it would be a great concern if benefits were reduced as the cost-of-living crisis is having a huge impact in our area,” she said.

“Quite a large proportion of the population have undoubtedly been struggling over recent years, and we have seen increased use of food banks by people who might never have previously seen themselves as likely to need extra help.”

Cllr Whitton added that she would want to see support given to small and medium-sized enterprises over the largest corporations as she felt this would be more likely to help the Devon economy.

Furthermore, she hoped for some form of initiative on social housing to help provide the housing stock that is “so desperately needed here”.

Richard Foord, the Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton & Honiton, expected the government might capture voters’ attention with a notional tax giveaway.

“But our concern is that they are going to be giving with one hand having taken away with the other,” he said.

“Since April 2022, the government has taken an extra £2,000 off of the average taxpayer due to frozen tax thresholds.

“Inflation has risen in a big way over that period, but the tax thresholds have not kept up with that.”

He also hopes to see a new carers’ minimum wage introduced, which would see care workers paid an extra £2 per hour.

“We think people in social care deserve their own minimum wage, and it would help to fill vacancies and get people the care they need,” he said.

“If we have more people working in social care, it enables beds to be freed up in hospitls so we won’t see the queues of ambulances that we saw last winter stacking up outside hospitals as people would be able to be released from beds.”

Mr Foord added that he hoped that a local campaign to save Seaton’s community hospital would be mentioned in the Autumn Statement, and wished for more funding for local infrastructure, especially after Cullompton’s bid for Levelling Up funding for a proposed relief road aimed at easing traffic congestion in the town.
 

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