Two weeks on from the Autumn Statement we’re still no clearer about some of the big issues that the Chancellor has failed to tackle in our region. Of course, we are all delighted that following hard-headed negotiations from across Tyne and Wear we heard the announcement of funding for a much-needed update to the Metro system, but it was disappointing that the Chancellor didn’t address the other crises our public services face.
Most notably absent was any reference to social care and how we try to square the circle of increasing need for help for our most vulnerable residents, whilst government grants to local authorities are being slashed (and expected to disappear completely by 2021). With an ageing population this poses a great challenge for councils in our region who are trying to find new ways of supporting our older and most vulnerable adults and children to live in their own home.
In Gateshead, we’ve seen a 52 per cent cut in government funding to the Council since 2010 and over half the council’s budget is now spent on the most vulnerable adults and children. Our local authorities are now consulting on their budgets for the next year and I would encourage people to get involved in their local consultation to make their voices heard.
I’m not holding my breath for a fairer local government settlement from the Tories to solve the problem. The big issue of social care needs much more attention and a clear plan to deal with an impending crisis. Unfortunately, the Government is running scared of the issue after floating their hugely unpopular “dementia tax” plans at the last General Election.
Of course, it’s not just councils that have been hit either: Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, Northumbria Police and many others are also facing huge cuts in government funding. Most of all, we as residents are feeling the impact.
There was nothing in the budget for Education, either, other than for Maths teaching. Maths teaching is of course hugely important, but many of our schools are struggling to balance their budget to provide the best education possible for our young people. Despite changes to the schools funding formula over the summer, 91% of schools are still facing a real-terms reduction in their budgets, as per-pupil funding has been reduced whilst pupil numbers are on the up. In short, the sums just don’t add up.
And then there’s public sector pay. The Chancellor tells us again and again that the public sector pay cap imposed by the Tories has gone, but staff right across the public sector are still seeing their pay fall in real terms whilst workload increases. It is not good enough to simply lift the cap. Phillip Hammond must now put his money where his mouth is by funding the NHS and all other public services properly. We can’t expect nurses or police officers to pay for their own pay rise by cutting their terms and conditions.
My office is as busy as ever, with many of my constituents waiting for their Universal Credit applications to be approved and finding themselves facing financial problems. Many must now wait until after Christmas for their first payment. The Chancellor’s announcement of changes to Universal Credit – a five week wait instead of six; two weeks’ roll on of Housing Benefit, an advance of up to a month’s Universal Credit – will do nothing to help people in Blaydon to cope with Christmas, let alone their day to day living expenses.
That’s why I am hugely grateful to the folk at Gateshead Foodbank, who have distribution points in Blaydon and now in Birtley, for the work they do in trying to fill the gap, to make sure people can cope over Christmas and have some festive cheer as the rest of us will. I keep repeating it, but it remains true: I thank them for their work but it shouldn’t be necessary in this day and age.
This budget has failed to tackle the real issues that people face right across the North East region. It is a “Nothing Has Changed” budget.