14 June 2024

UNISON: To whoever forms the next government…

UNISON: To whoever forms the next government… image
Image: RobertoBarcellona / Shutterstock.com.

In the latest in our NextGov series, Christina McAnea, general secretary of UNISON, tells LocalGov.co.uk what the sector’s biggest union hopes to see from the next government.

Around 800 local government workers from across the UK are gathering this weekend at UNISON’s annual conference in Brighton to debate the future of local government.

The biggest issue on the agenda at the two-day local government event is council funding – or rather, the lack of it. Local services and the dedicated staff who work tirelessly to deliver them have never recovered from the hammering that was dubbed ‘austerity’ after 2010.

This ruthless policy of slashing central government support for local authorities has resulted in the loss of approximately 500,000 jobs. It has also led to the devastation of frontline services for society's most vulnerable, including children's and youth centres, libraries, and local welfare schemes.

Local government staff have borne the brunt of this under-investment. Driven by a commitment to their communities and a desire to make a real difference, these workers strive to ensure opportunities exist for everyone and all residents enjoy a good quality of life. Yet at the conference in Brighton, delegates will hear once more how another round of cuts has hit women, families, colleagues and the wider community.

Staff are desperate for change. Local authority workers want there to be proper funding for the services they provide. The next government must offer stable funding for councils and a much-needed cash injection to rescue vital services from further closures.

It’s also crucial to reverse the recent Conservative government’s ‘solution’ to councils facing effective bankruptcy – allowing them to sell off assets as a short-term fix for financial woes. While this might have prevented some further section 114 notices and negative headlines, it leaves local communities depleted forever. Stripped of valuable assets like museums, civic halls, children’s centres and playing fields, these are assets that councils cannot easily replace or rebuild.

Council workers also desperately need investment from the next government. They need to feel valued and able to afford to continue serving their communities. Over the past 14 years, local government salaries have declined in real terms by an average of 25%, with social workers now 31% worse off in real terms than they were in 2010.

Investment is essential to end the race to the bottom in pay. Local authority and school employees, who are also council taxpayers, constituents, voters and users of services, deserve fair wages. In many areas, the local council is one of the largest employers, and ensuring fair pay boosts the local economy and reduces demand on services – a virtuous circle indeed.

Council staff also need certainty. The annual farce of authorities waiting to discover their funding allocation leaves them unable to plan effectively. Stability in the form of multi-year finance settlements would enable councils to develop effective workforce plans and address workers’ pay on a longer-term basis.

In addition, local government workers want to see fairer funding distribution. Staff in social work, housing, youth services and other departments know the communities most in need. The current allocation of scarce ‘levelling up’ funding pots favours those with the glossiest bids and the right political persuasion rather than the most disadvantaged communities. This bureaucratic farce is not the way to address deep-seated inequalities – it does not push support to the areas and communities most in need of support.

At UNISON’s local government conference this weekend, the union is publishing several reports – including analyses of local children’s centres and youth services – which highlight the devastating impact of ‘austerity’ on some of the most vulnerable groups in society.

The report on council-run children’s centres reveals that more than a third have closed since austerity measures were imposed in 2010-11. This has stripped vulnerable children of crucial pre-school education services, including language and social development skills – even basic toilet training. But the impact extends way beyond children. Struggling parents have lost vital face-to-face support, while health visitors and social services staff see children and families less frequently. This puts pressure on social services further down the line.

A separate study into council-run youth services shows more than a thousand youth centres have shut down since 2010. Local authority staff warn that is creating a ‘lost generation’ of young people, left without post-school education support, leisure facilities or youth worker mentors. Instead, these young people are at greater risk of being drawn into anti-social behaviour, drugs, gangs and other criminal activities.

The reasons behind why councils might have to issue section 114 notices effectively declaring bankruptcy might vary, but the systematic underfunding of local authorities is the root cause. The Government is wrong to blame councils for the current crisis.

There will be optimism in the conference hall in Brighton. The election presents a chance for change and the workers gathered on the south coast will hope their voices are heard by whoever emerges victorious on 4 July.

Check out: NextGov: What the next government should do for children’s services and NextGov: Revitalising local democracy.

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