Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
Thank you for those contributions. There is no doubt among any of us about the real sense of urgency and the importance of the amendments that we are discussing in this group. Again, it is inevitable that the question of the £1.5 billion comes up, but we also need to keep a very close eye on the economic prospects as we go forward. I have to say, the confidence around that is not as great as perhaps we are being led to believe.
Again, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for putting her name to Amendments 1 and 2, and for the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Lytton; he really got across that sense of urgency. I can confirm that Labour has called for the longer-term abolition of the current system of business rates, to be replaced by a new system that is better balanced between high-street businesses and the out-of-town online giants, as we have been hearing.
On Amendment 2, does the Minister agree with the assessment that we are in a very lumpy situation, and will he be looking at how the playing field can be levelled out? That is a really important question that we need some certainty on. Again, Labour has called for an increase in small business rate relief next year from the current threshold of £15,000 to £25,000. Does the Minister accept that we need an increase in relief to help small businesses cope?
I turn to the amendment in my name. It is important, at every opportunity that we have in this House, to really spell out the dire situation facing local authorities, particularly regarding the financial position that they are in. This is one reason local authorities are asking for clarity and a sense of urgency. They are also asking that, once the criteria are established, the way that this unfolds is kept under review, and for local authority guidance to be published as soon as possible. We made a very strong case for that at Second Reading.
We know that Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on local authority finances, with a combination of income falling and costs rising. The income element for local authorities, I am afraid, is one which the former Secretary of State would not take into account in terms of the losses that local authorities have been facing. This is on top of the fact that Conservative Governments since 2010 have cut £15 billion from central government funding to local authorities.
We are looking at a situation, according to the LGA, where councils in England will face a funding gap of more than £5 billion by 2024 just to maintain services at current levels. It estimates that the Government will need to find an extra £10.1 billion per year in core funding to local authorities by 2023-24 just to plug the existing funding gap. New research by the BBC, I understand, has shown that UK councils have found a £3 billion black hole in their budgets as they emerge from the pandemic. Put in that context, I think we can all understand why there is so much concern from local authorities about how much is going to be available to them to distribute, to enable businesses in their areas to survive and to continue to pay the rates due to them. Again, I ask whether the guidance can be issued to local authorities as a matter of haste and whether it is possible for us to have an understanding of when that will be.
I was actually in the room when the former Secretary of State told local authority leaders that the Government would provide
“whatever funding is needed for councils to get through this and come out the other side”.
Again, I ask: does the Minister believe that this promise has been kept? I do not think we need a list of all the different resources that have been given to local authorities, welcome though they have been. Unfortunately, they do not match the need and we know from the impact of the pandemic that need in our communities, through a whole raft of measures, is really going through the roof.
In that context, I hope that everyone will recognise the urgency required to resolve these matters but also the enormous challenges facing local authorities in the years ahead.