The future of our high streets: of levelling up and council funding

The feeling is that town centres have to be reshaped to equip them for a new future that draws people for different reasons such as health, beauty, entertainment and education.

Local government has coped with a prolonged period of real-terms spending reduction which is without parallel in modern times.

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Several towns in the SouthWest are being given funds from central government:

Five high streets in Devon and Cornwall to share £51m – Devon Live

£830 million funding boost for high streets – GOV.UK

Government names 72 high streets in England to share £831m recovery fund | Business | The Guardian

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The District Council had put forward Axminster in East Devon for funding – which ultimately failed:

Councillors choose Axminster over Cranbrook as town for Future High Street Fund bid – Devon Live

Axminster funding bid | Midweek Herald

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Nevertheless, there are innovative plans and, even in these stricken times, considerable promise for the likes of Axminster in East Devon, as recounted by Barrie Hedges in the Midweek Herald: 

At a time when so many small local traders are struggling to survive, it’s hard to be positive about your high street. But those who love Axminster will agree that something is stirring in a town that has been struggling over recent years.

Retail experts seem to agree that we can’t turn back the clock – the fundamental structure of high streets has changed and it’s no good being sentimental. The feeling is that town centres have to be reshaped to equip them for a new future that draws people for different reasons such as health, beauty, entertainment and education.

While they are there, they will also hopefully shop. The challenge lies in creating an overall experience, making Axminster’s town centre a go-to destination where people want to dwell awhile.

What next for Axminster? | Midweek Herald

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Meanwhile, central government is promising more ‘levelling up’:

Brexit: PM vows to focus on ‘levelling up country’ after securing deal – BBC News

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However, this might not happen, as suggested in the Guardian back in the days before the pandemic:

The writer Jonathan Meades called jargon the “prissy net curtains of language”. Political jargon is primarily about artifice, about projecting a certain image of the party and of the politician speaking…

Already, just eight weeks after the election, it’s clear that the rhetoric of “levelling up” is at odds with the government’s true ambitions. A planned reallocation of council funding may redirect millions of pounds away from the north of England…

‘Levelling up’ is a semantic sleight of hand to let the Tories off the hook | Politics | The Guardian

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Such reports are from across the political spectrum, including these from this end of the pandemic:

Councils set to make sweeping cuts to local services to fill £6bn Covid hole | telegraph.co.uk (paywall)

COVID-19 and English council funding: how are budgets being hit in 2020–21? – Institute For Fiscal Studies – IFS

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The reality is that England is one of the most centralised countries in Europe – and funding from central government to local councils has been steadily decreasing over the last decade:

By 2020, local authorities will have faced a reduction to core funding from the Government of nearly £16 billion over the preceding decade. That means that councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 the Government had provided to spend on local services in the last eight years. Next year, 168 councils will receive no revenue support grant at all…

Local government funding: Moving the conversation on | local.gov.uk

Local government has coped with a prolonged period of real-terms spending reduction which is without parallel in modern times. This large fall in local authorities’ resources has been primarily caused by very significant cuts in central government grants…

Local government finance and the 2019 Spending Review – Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee – House of Commons

It’s widely known that since 2010, English councils have had less money to spend. But that’s just half the story. When you account for inflation – or how much more expensive everything else is getting – some councils have had to cut some areas of their spending by half. Housing and planning budgets have been particularly hit, with only children’s social care seeing rising spending…

How cuts changed council spending, in seven charts – BBC News

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So, the current announcements amount to several mixed messages, including these: 

Councils across England will receive £51.2 billion next year – an increase of £2.2 billion from last year.

Government announces new funding boost for councils – GOV.UK

Of the £2.2 billion (4.5%) increase in core funding projected for next year, less than £0.3 billion is from the government. The other £1.9 billion is from increases in council tax bills of up to 5%, and assumes councils make full use of the allowable increases.

Assessing England’s 2021-22 Local Government Finance Settlement – Institute For Fiscal Studies – IFS

Cllr James Jamieson, chair of the Local Government Association, said: “Today’s settlement provides a potential increase … in council core spending power to support vital local services. However, this assumes council tax bills will rise by 5 per cent next year which will place a significant burden on households.”

Government approves 5% council tax rise amid warnings of service cuts | The Independent

But while this suggested the chancellor was being generous with central government funds, in fact it was simply a suggestion to local authorities that they raise council tax rates much faster than inflation — something they have been doing since 2016. This suggests Mr Sunak is imposing austerity by stealth. According to the independent Office for Budget Responsibility “replacing some grant funding for local authorities with increased local funding via council tax increases” will leave taxpayers paying an extra £1bn a year from 2021.

The onus on local authorities to fund more of their services from council tax revenues rather than central government grants will exacerbate a continuous squeeze on local budgets since 2010 that left councils shouldering a hefty chunk of the austerity that followed the financial crisis…

England’s councils face austerity by stealth | Financial Times

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Meanwhile, in Cornwall:

Brexit: Cornwall to face ‘significant’ funding cut – BBC News

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So, in conclusion, the sort of entrepreneurial endeavours happening in Axminster, where practical ideas for the high street are emerging, will have to see us through the near future.

Unless promises of levelling up are fulfilled, from genuinely deprived areas to the shires are fulfilled – with the final note of caution from Isabel Hardman, assistant editor of the Spectator, writing in the Observer today:

With a deal done, can No 10 turn ‘levelling up’ into more than a nebulous phrase? | North-south divide | The Guardian

   
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