What will be left of our city? how Tory cuts are destroying councils

In the swirl of government alphabet and number soup, the “114 notice” has appeared far more regularly in the last few years. A section of the Local Government Act 1988, the 114 has become the byword for a local authority in financial difficulties and the well-trodden route for these councils, like Birmingham, Thurrock, Woking and my own city of Nottingham, culminates in the appointment of commissioners. 

Commissioners seem to be the government-approved “bogeyman”: “set a balanced budget, local authority, or the commissioners will get you”. However, is this even possible for councils following 14 years of ever-declining central grant funding at a time of increased demand and cost? Our local authorities are ripping apart at the seams and many, including Nottingham, have seen their ability to make the payments balance almost totally unravel. 

With the appointment of unelected government-mandated officials, there is a question of democracy – Nottingham has no Conservative politicians in elected office: our 3 MPs are all Labour, the council elected 51 of 55 Labour councillors last May and not a single Tory. Yet, the Conservative government has intervened. From the Party that often delivered the line “unelected bureaucrats from Brussels” this seems rich. 

As always with local government, it comes down to finance. Nottingham’s Government Revenue Support Grant in 2013 was £127 million. For 2024, it is £31 million. This is despite the population of the city rising by 5.9% between 2011 and 2021, and when a pint of milk has increased its cost by 50% since the Tories came into office in 2010. Put simply, Nottingham is being asked to do more, for more, with less money and costs up. The answer to this would always result in cuts to services beyond our statutory duties, and even those duties suffering. 

This is happening in a city where, unlike many other large conurbations, the outer suburbs are not included in the city’s administrative area, instead sitting in the county and paying their council tax there. For Nottingham City, over 90% of our council tax is band A or B with many of these properties eligible for discretionary reduction in this bill or occupied by students, who don’t pay council tax, from our two universities. Falling foul on the geography has very real impacts on local budgets now. 

The City’s finances aren’t as robust as we might have liked. Missteps of the past have cost us. We are often reminded of Robin Hood Energy, a municipal energy company which aimed to use any surplus to alleviate fuel poverty in the city. This had been encouraged by the government’s capitalisation drive from 2013 and the volatility of the energy market has since seen off almost all of the smaller companies set up to challenge the Big Six. 

I was briefly Chair of Robin Hood Energy and after I’d been appointed, when I was made aware of the deep issues with the company, we moved swiftly to protect taxpayers. We could not continue to throw good money after bad, however noble the original intentions.

In hindsight, Robin Hood Energy was a mistake but the losses here (£34 million), whilst large and painful, are far far less than the losses of funding from government or our annual costs of £57 million for adult and children’s social care and homelessness support services. We also rarely hear praise for Nottingham’s innovative schemes to raise revenue for things like sustainable transport via our Workplace Parking Levy. 

Nottingham faces a budget which sees the closure of council-run social care facilities like The Oaks, Cherry Trees and the Jackdawe dementia home care service, cuts to libraries, lunchclubs and community centres, and, especially concerning as a former Communities Portfolio Holder, considerably less street cleaning in neighbourhoods and a severe reduction in Community Protection Officer numbers. There is talk of 500 redundancies. Many of these proposals are opposed by our Labour councillors, our unions, our communities. 

The commissioners are here now, and the indication is they will insist on the strictest budget we can pass, saving the most precious council cash. I welcome them to the great City of Nottingham – I would have wished them to come under better and different circumstances, perhaps on a day trip to Green’s Windmill Science Centre in my ward. As Labour councillors, myself and colleagues want to work productively with anyone to try and get the best deal for Nottingham people. But, with the specifics of a city like Nottingham, I struggle to see this best deal without a fairer funding formula from an incoming Labour government. Over to you, Angela Rayner and Jim McMahon.