Tuesday 23rd April 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joy Morrissey.)
Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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Before I call Mr Perkins, may I inform the House that permission has been given to the House Photographer to move around parts of the Chamber and take photographs in the course of this debate—that has consent?

19:06
Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
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Let us hope he gets my best side, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate on the vital issue of Derbyshire County Council’s funding and governance. The services that people in our county receive have diminished so much, and although the Minister and his Department must take their share of the blame, it is also important to have an opportunity to detail the ways in which the county council’s leadership have added to their problems.

Since the Government came to power here in Westminster, Derbyshire County Council’s budget has been slashed by £780 million in real terms. In 2010, its budget was about £1 billion, which is £1.48 billion in today’s money, but Derbyshire County Council’s current budget is £700 million. Therefore, it is less than half of what it was 14 years ago in real terms. At a time of great financial hardship, not least because of the runaway inflation unleashed by the Conservative party, it is a disgraceful and heartbreaking situation.

These cuts have a material effect on the provision of services and on people’s lives. Next week, the council will decide whether to go ahead with its proposal to close 10 children’s centres across the region, not only denying essential services to the children and families of Derbyshire, but potentially costing 118 people their livelihoods. Centres at risk of closure include Holme Hall and Old Whittington in my constituency, and those in Alfreton, Ironville, Langley Mill, Bolsover, Hadfield, Gamesley, Matlock, and Charnos, in Ilkeston.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. I am trying to understand this: Derbyshire County Council has had its moneys reduced at the same time as its population has grown, and so the demands on the moneys it has have grown. Is there not something illogical, unfair and immoral with that happening, in this case to Derbyshire’s council?

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Perkins
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It would not be an Adjournment debate without the hon. Gentleman’s contribution and I am grateful to him for it, because his point is well made. The budget cuts we have seen in Derbyshire have come alongside an increase in the population and there is an argument, which many of us in Derbyshire have made, that the authority has been particularly badly treated on the finances. The point he makes is a very valid one.

When the UK and Derbyshire were both run by Labour administrations, there were 56 of these children’s centres, but after 14 years, if these plans are approved, there will be just 12. The centres provide essential services such as health visits, speech and language development, healthy eating, parenting, school readiness, family support, parenting groups and help to improve family relationships. We know that the work done by the staff in the centres has a massive benefit to the children and families that they help.

I was first elected to this place in 2010. During the election campaign, the issue of whether Sure Start was safe if the Conservatives were elected was a key plank of the Labour party campaign. The Conservatives furiously denied Gordon Brown’s claims that one in five Sure Start centres would be endangered if the Conservatives were elected. Well, in Derbyshire, Gordon Brown was indeed wrong: we have seen not one in five of these children centres close, but four in five. Now, the Government wonder why they are spending more than ever on the costs of failure, but they have failed to invest in the early years. When the Minister responds, can he tell us whether he believes that the loss of 44 of Derbyshire’s 56 children centres during the past 14 years of a Conservative Government is primarily down to electing a Conservative Government or down to electing a Conservative council?

We will come on in due course to the authority’s failings in special needs education, but at every school I visit, experienced headteachers say to me that they have never seen so many children with serious special needs. Has anyone in the Government considered whether the stripping away of these early years services may be contributing to the huge increase in the number of children presenting on their first day at school without being school ready and often in need of support with speech and language, dressing and toileting?

The authority got in touch with me and with other Derbyshire MPs to ask us to lobby Ministers for more money, which I and many other MPs did, as the authority was being charged excessive amounts by private providers of children’s services. Derbyshire has embarked on a savage programme of privatisation of services and so would be vulnerable to private sector overcharging, because it has crippled the strong publicly provided services that it inherited.

One feature of this Administration’s approach has been the unfortunate habit of marrying serial incompetence with careless arrogance and indifference to public opinion. The closure of these buildings is a case in point. Jon Pearce, Labour’s parliamentary candidate in High Peak, has teamed up with local Labour councillors to support the community’s plan to create a community hub and preserve the centre at Gamesley, which houses a youth club and boxing club in one of Derbyshire’s most deprived communities. Those clubs were shocked to receive a call out of the blue from DCC to say that they had a matter of weeks to find another venue, because the decision had already been made to close the building.

The community is attempting to form a constituted community organisation and has secured a three-month extension, but it is engaged in a race against time. We have also recently heard that Derbyshire County Council is looking to close two thirds of the care homes that it manages, as well as eight older people day centres. The right to dignity in old age is a sacred covenant in this country. Old people should know that when they work hard for their entire life and make a contribution to society, they should be able to retire with a degree of comfort and security. I feel that the covenant is now disintegrating before our eyes.

The governor from a school in Brampton was in such despair at the situation that she attended the most recent full meeting of Derbyshire County Council to set out that, to meet budgetary constraints while continuing to deliver the required level of care, the school is being forced to cut 160 teaching hours a week.

The cost of living crisis, spiralling rents and ever increasing mortgage rates are destroying the social contract in real time, and the inability of a council to provide services that facilitate for the most in need is a damning indictment of 14 years of Tory rule and local mismanagement. This situation could mean 162 vulnerable residents being turfed out on to the street. The council is now closing its own centres and using the private sector more—it is spending more and getting less. Spending on private care homes has increased by 61% since 2018-19, at a time when the authority has had to close seven of its own care homes, losing 156 beds. It has also closed 140 beds in its remaining 16 care homes and has around 30 vacancies. Where is the county’s duty of care to those living in its care homes? It is not as if the council is efficient. While Labour-run Chesterfield continues to enjoy the lowest council tax in the country, the Tory administration on the council has raised council tax by almost 5%. The need for social care for adults is only going to grow and grow as people live longer lives. I am sure we can all agree that this is a good problem to have, but more funding is needed from Government if councils are to be able to provide essential services such as this. Can the Minister set out the guidance he has provided to county councils and authorities to plan for the delivery of services in the context of demographic change and real-terms cuts to budgets?

The children of Derbyshire are suffering massively under the current council leadership, too. Spending on private schools for children with special needs has increased from £5.7 million in 2018-19 to £24 million in 2023-24, according to the schools forum report, while investment in council provision falters. At almost every single one of my weekly surgeries, I have parents in attendance who have children with special needs who are unable to get into a dedicated special needs establishment. Often, these children are excluded from their mainstream school—these children are missing months or, in some cases, years of their schooling—and are unable to make a mainstream placement work, but unable to access specialist provision.

It can now be revealed that, throughout this period of hardship, Derbyshire County Council has received around £17.5 million of capital funding from the Department for Education since 2019 for additional special school places, but has spent a paltry £1.5 million. That means £16 million, or 91% of the budget it has received, is sat in Derbyshire County Council’s coffers, while parents of special needs children lose sleep every night at the lack of provision in our county. It is nothing short of a betrayal of those parents and their children. What can the Minister do to work with colleagues in the Department for Education to get this dysfunctional authority to deliver special needs placements for Derbyshire children?

The case of Brampton Primary School, which I referred to earlier, encapsulates all that is wrong with Derbyshire County Council’s budget allocation and service delivery. The school has an excellent special needs unit, but also has a tremendous reputation for how it has supported special needs children within its mainstream provision. As a result of this reputation, many parents from well outside the Brampton catchment area who have special needs children will choose it for their children. However, this reputation for inclusivity comes at a tremendous cost to Brampton.

The primary school has 317 children on its roll, with 31% of these children having SEN. It is proud of its reputation for creating a supportive environment for children who have additional needs, but each child who has an education, health and care plan has the first £6,000 of their extra costs covered by the school before any central funding comes in. On top of that, dozens of children are waiting for special needs assessments from the overwhelmed county council education service. While the children and their families wait for their assessment to be heard, the school receives no additional funding for these pupils at all.

A school that has gone out of its way to support those who have the greatest needs is crushing into the rocks of an inadequate funding mechanism and a county education service that is failing to support those children. Can the Minister explain how we can ensure that schools such as Brampton are not penalised for their own success in supporting special needs children?

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con)
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I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. I agree with the points he is making about the need for Derbyshire County Council to get EHCP assessments done much more quickly and much more accurately than they are currently. I pay tribute to the three special schools in my constituency, especially Alfreton Park, which is a brand new—rebuilt—school that was opened last year, which is a sign that there has been some investment.

Does the hon. Member agree with me about the importance of keeping respite care centres open? That is not least to provide parents with a bit of a break, but also because, if they close, there is a real risk that some parents will not be able to cope, and we will end up with the cost of having those kids in full-time residential care and costing the county council more. It is also the last thing parents want to happen.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Perkins
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I join the hon. Member in paying tribute to the special educational needs placements he talks about. Their work is outstanding. I was intending to be at Ashgate Croft School on Monday, but, unfortunately, I was unable to make it, and I will be returning there soon. He is right about the importance of respite care, and the perverse impact that cutting those services ends up having on the amount of money the authority spends. I agree with him on both those points. Although the council’s budget has been dramatically reduced by the Government since 2010, its use of the precious available funds has been nothing short of appalling. Budgetary constraints have produced an atmosphere of pressure within public sector delivery bodies, and I have a profound respect and pride for workers doing their utmost in trying circumstances, but the leadership of the council can and must do better.

Derbyshire enjoys the dubious honour of being the pothole capital of the UK. The Beatles may have sung about 10,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, but research by Mac’s Truck Rental found that Derbyshire was home to over 90,000 potholes, and I am pretty sure I have been over them all. Potholes are a serious problem, with profound consequences for road users and public safety. At the behest of a constituent, I recently drove from Ashgate Avenue along Old Road towards Old Brampton, and then to Loundsley Green. The number of potholes I saw on that stretch alone was staggering. I have had to replace two tyres and a spring this winter, and the state of our roads is the No. 1 local issue raised by my constituents when we are out speaking to them on the doorstep. While potholes are a danger for drivers, they are lethal for cyclists.

I have not yet found the courage to tell the enraged motorists of Chesterfield that the Conservative leader of Derbyshire County Council claims that the council is one of the best in the country at pothole repairs, but I have seen how a penny-pinching approach creates even more work for the council, often returning to the same holes over and over again. Some 24% of Derbyshire’s principal roads need repair, compared with the second worst county councils, Kent and Sussex, at 6%, way below. The leader of the county council, Mr Lewis, was closer to the mark when he admitted that his authority adopted a

“patch-up and sticking plaster approach”

to improving our roads. When the figures are investigated it all becomes clear: Derbyshire spends just £54.81 per head on road repairs, the lowest in the country, with an average spend across councils of £86. Derbyshire is allocating 36% less than the average council per head on road repairs. No wonder potholes are so omnipresent across our county.

The council has no plan for co-ordinating disruption to road services from different organisations, so why do the Government not adopt Labour’s plan to have oversight of those contractors so that motorists do not go through the inconvenience of a road being dug up and patched up by one contractor, only for someone else to dig it up again the next week? Having benefited from support throughout covid, instead of investing extra money in its services the council chose to award Tory councillors by creating additional cabinet posts, and lifting its spend while cutting back on services. It also scrapped the chief executive role only to create the post of managing director who, at a princely £176,000, is paid more than the Prime Minister and is a £38,000 increase on the previous incumbent.

I am afraid the answers for Derbyshire lie at its own door. The services provided by Derbyshire bear no relationship to those that existed in 2009 when Derbyshire and Britain were run by Labour Administrations. We cannot go on like this. On 2 May the voters of Derbyshire have an opportunity to send a message to those who have let our county down so badly, vote for a Labour Mayor and police and crime commissioner, and start the process of rebuilding our shattered public services in our beautiful county.

19:23
Simon Hoare Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Simon Hoare)
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. A competition of trying to judge the difference between him and a ray of sunshine would not be difficult to engage in, because if one listened to him, one would think all was doom and gloom and bleakness in Derbyshire. Let me assure him, and my hon. Friends the Members for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) and for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines) who are in the Chamber this evening, that in no way, shape or form is Derbyshire County Council on any red list or radar-flashing screen in my Department. That is good news for the residents and service users of Derbyshire. At this juncture, let me also put on record my thanks, as we all should, to all those officers and councillors, irrespective of party, who turn up day in, day out to serve their communities and to try to make things a little better for people in Derbyshire. They deserve our thanks.

The hon. Gentleman referenced in some detail—understandably so, as I am not seeking to dismiss his concerns in any way—children’s centres and other services provided to young people. Those, as he will know, are properly and in great respect in the domain of the Department for Education. I will not intrude upon other Ministers’ portfolios, but I undertake to the hon. Gentleman—I hope this will serve as a sort of holding reply—to ensure that my colleagues in the DFE are aware of his remarks and concerns and respond accordingly and appropriately.

There is little to no doubt that the funding scenario for local government in England has been challenging, and it would be foolish of any Local Government Minister to stand at the Dispatch Box of the House of Commons and say it has not. It clearly has been, and that was recognised in the additional £600 million that we provided to the local government funding settlement this year. The funding formula has creaked and groaned under stresses and strains over many years. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out—he is not unique in doing so; virtually every conversation I have with anybody with an interest in or representing the concerns of local government draws attention to it—the two almost unstoppable trajectories of growth demand: in special educational needs and the support services that wrap around that area of local government service; and, at the other end of the age spectrum, in adult social care. Those are good news stories in themselves, because they are testimony to the success of the national health service in supporting people in their lives and ensuring that they are fit and healthy. Those things lead to additional and growing demands on the services of local government. Local government is rising to that challenge across the piece magnificently, but there is always work to do.

It is recognised across the two Front Benches that the funding formula does not need tinkering with or a little tweak here and there—it effectively needs dismantling and starting from scratch. Such things as the use of data to inform, the ability to define need, the ability to respect and reflect upon the differentials in need demand in rural versus urban, and in coastal as well, as was dealt with yesterday in oral questions, should all play into that. That is why I am talking to council leaderships across the country and to the wider sector about where we think the formula should land in the next Parliament.

The formula cannot be ignored, because we all want, particularly reflecting in this 50th year since the local government reforms of 1974, to find a robust and sustainable way forward, so that the future of English local government can continue for the next 25 to 50 years. Post covid, the sector asked the Government for stability and certainty. We have delivered that by not instigating a major review of the formula. As I say, that is a job for the next Parliament.

It is worthwhile just to look at the figures for Derbyshire County Council. Its managing director, Emma Alexander, has by her own admission described the council—and I agree with her assessment—as being sound and stable financially. That is good news for council tax payers and service users of Derbyshire because it means that, against that backdrop of sound and stable finances, informed and proper decisions and changes can be taken rather than knee-jerk reactions in response to pressures outwith the council’s control.

The council and Ms Alexander are realistic enough to highlight that the council’s next focus—its immediate focus—has to be on modernisation, implementing what they describe as “one council” working and new transformational strategic plans for the whole of Derbyshire. I think that that will drive efficiency. One can only hope that in that drive of improved efficiency, services will improve still further for the residents of Derbyshire.

This year’s settlement for the county council was a significant increase in core spending power of 8.3% on the previous year, up £54.88 million, making available a total of £715.3 million for 2024-25. The hon. Gentleman referenced some of the work done through the social care grant. It now means that for 2024-25 Derbyshire is receiving £140.2 million through that grant. Last year, of course, the Government awarded £70 million of levelling-up capital funding to the Derbyshire region, including £50 million for the South Derby growth zone and £20 million for Chesterfield town centre.

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman—and I think that in his heart of hearts he knows this—that one should look not just at the cold figure of the money produced, as important as that is, in the local government finance settlement, but at the broader ranges of support and intervention that the Government are providing across Derbyshire, including the town deal, the accelerated towns fund, the levelling up fund, the community ownership fund, the future high streets fund, the long-term plan for towns, levelling up culture, capital regeneration, the UK shared prosperity fund, the UK shared prosperity fund multiplier, the community renewal fund, levelling up partnerships and levelling up parks, all of which have generated significant sums of money for Derbyshire, alongside the grant and council tax-raising ability of the county council, to deliver services for local people.

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Sarah Dines (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)
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May I say on behalf of the people of Derbyshire Dales that we are immensely grateful for the £13.5 million of levelling-up funds, without which the town of Ashbourne would be going back in time instead of looking to the future? There is also the shared prosperity fund. One of my towns, Matlock, will receive a lot of money and do a lot of good work. My experience of how the Government and the county council have reacted and responded to the needs of my constituents is very different from that of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins).

I have had over 30,000 emails since my election, and a great number of them have been about local councils, SEND provision, potholes and other matters. The management of the county council by the Conservatives has been very good, and there is always more work to do. Who could not spend more money on SEND? These issues are precious to us, but given the money that is available, my experience is very different from that of the hon. Gentleman. I am worried that these matters have been brought up at this stage, mid-election, when really we need to look at the facts. Derbyshire County Council could always do with more money, but it manages the money that it has really well. The leader, Barry Lewis, is particularly good. He is a credit to us all.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the upbeat fillip, which we needed to hear from a representative of Derbyshire. I am delighted to hear that her constituents —and I suggest probably the constituents of Chesterfield, Erewash, Bolsover, across the Amber Valley, South Derbyshire, Clay Cross, Staveley and Long Eaton—are pleased to see the attention on them to deliver levelling up and make sure that those engines of growth, livelihood and success can be sustained.

I am convinced by the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) to deliver the East Midlands Combined County Authority. A £1.14 billion devolution deal for the wider west midlands to drive growth and boost opportunity demonstrates yet again—if demonstration were still needed—our commitment to devolving more money and power to local leaders. The establishment of the East Midlands CCA will open the way to providing considerable funding for the area. The combined county authority will have control of £38 million a year. That can be well spent and maximised with the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), who is standing head and shoulders above the other candidates for the post of Mayor. I wish him well. I wish the people of Derbyshire well. This Government stand behind them, ready to serve them, to meet their local and central Government needs.

Question put and agreed to.

19:35
House adjourned.