Tue 22 June 2021

As we calculate Labour’s electoral losses, we need to look at the uneven impact of spending cuts over the last decade, says Sian Norris

A clip of an Hartlepool voter talking to the BBC’s Chris Mason about switching from Labour to Conservative in Thursday’s by-election went viral over the weekend. The interviewee shared how Labour had “wrecked it” for Hartlepool, referencing cuts to hospital services, the closure of the court and lack of police cells in the town. 

Between 2010-2019, nearly half of courts closed in England and Wales, with the Government announcing it wants to close a further 77 by 2025/6. 

The interview prompted debate on how central Government cuts to local authority funding are felt locally – including with how local MPs are blamed for the “wreck” of a decade of austerity even when those MPs are not in Government.

Between 2010 and 2018, Government funding for local authorities fell by an estimated 49.1% in real terms, equating to a 28.6% reduction in spending power. By 2020, the cuts to core funding from the Government had amounted to £16 billion

While some core services are protected, the Communities and Local Government Select Committee found funding changes resulted “in severe cuts in the non-statutory services that councils provide.”

In terms of the issues raised by the Hartlepool voter, 2019 analysis from the Institute For Government found that nationally 16% less was spent on policing in real terms in 2018/9 compared to 2009/10. With funding from central Government decreasing over time, the report authors wrote, “forces are increasingly relying on income raised through council tax bills, known as the ‘police precept’.”

“The decline in central Government funding has affected forces, most of which derive a large proportion of their income from central grants,” it added. “Since 2010 the police have also sold off capital assets, including police stations, to raise funds.” 

Who Felt the Chop?

The impact of local authority cuts has not been felt evenly by all regions. Data from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that between 2010-15, the most deprived all-purpose authorities saw cuts of more than £220 per head compared with under £40 per head for the wealthiest.

For example, social care funding in the most deprived areas has been cut by 14% (£65 per head) while in the least deprived areas social care funding rose by 8%.

Labour councils were therefore harder hit by austerity measures than their Conservative counterparts, as more deprived areas are more likely to return Labour MPs. 

2020 data published by the Guardian and carried out with Sigoma found that of the 50 councils worst hit by austerity, 28 were Labour-run in 2010. On average, Labour councils saw their budgets decline by 34% while Conservative councils faced a decline of 24%. 

Ten years into austerity and the numbers were even more skewed against Labour: 38 of the 50 worst-hit councils were Labour-controlled while only five were Conservative authorities.

The north-west and north-east of England, where Labour suffered bruising defeats last week, saw the worst cuts in their spending power. Councils in the north-east saw a reduction in spending power of 34%. 

However, while some of the worst spending power cuts were in the traditional Red Wall, deprived areas in Labour’s metropolitan areas were hit hard too. Inner London boroughs – which have some of the worst rates of child poverty in England – received budget cuts of more than a third.

At the same time as local authorities saw cuts to their funding, the impact of austerity on issues such as housing, health, domestic abuse and homelessness meant that councils had to “cope with increased demands for the key services.”

Professor Murphy from Nottingham Trent University told the Communities and Local Government Select Committee in 2019 how “the parts of the population that rely on the services or have demand for the services have been growing more quickly than the population as a whole. We are getting fairly significant increases in demand, and the most obvious thing is social services.”

There were many reasons why Labour’s campaigns in these regions have floundered over the past decade. However, the impact of ideologically-driven austerity measures from the Government, including swingeing cuts to local government, should be considered in any post-electoral analysis. Labour voting areas have been hit hardest by Conservative austerity.  

This doesn’t mean that when voters in Hartlepool talk about cuts to local services, we should let local decision-makers off the hook. It simply means that we should also be looking at funding patterns, reorganisations and cuts, and ask why and where they have fallen since 2010.

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