South of the River – it is about the money


Compass-SouthComment logo 2I’d just finished writing last week’s South of the River column when I saw these comments pop up on Twitter.

Gerald: “it’s not about money, it’s about the lack of opportunity and understanding” #PovertyTruth

Anna: “people who are making decisions are too often getting their information from the media rather than real people” #PovertyTruth

Gerald: “I’ve found that small amounts spread wisely make the most difference” #PovertyTruth

Anna: “You can give someone money… but if you give them the chance to build their esteem that’s priceless” #PovertyTruth

They were talking about living in poverty and how to get out of poverty. They were both right and they were both wrong.

It’s true that you can’t buy self-esteem, but you do need money for the bus fare into town to sign on, or for the second hand computer to search for a job, or claim your benefit if Universal Credit ever comes in.

I don’t know Anna’s circumstances, but she is one of the testifiers relating their experience of living in poverty to the Leeds Poverty Truth Challenge. Gerald is Gerald Jennings from Land Securities and is one of ‘the great and the good’ also involved in the Challenge.

Land Securities is the largest commercial property company in the UK and owners of the White Rose Shopping Centre and Trinity Leeds in the city centre. Land Securities has a pretty good track record of what is known in the jargon as ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ or CSR, they are partners in the Arise charity which gives grants to community groups in South Leeds.

I have to be careful here not to kill the golden goose, but like the testifiers, South Leeds Life’s job is to ‘speak truth to power’. CSR is very good so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. A few thousand pounds here, some volunteers time there.

This week also saw the Council debate its budget for the coming year. The budget report is 500 pages long and I only started looking at it last night, so forgive me if I only draw some very crude conclusions.

The budget for 2014/15 is about £566m. Less than half of that comes from the Council Tax that you and I pay to the Council, the rest comes from central government grants and business rates which are set nationally, pooled and redistributed by the government. In other words Leeds City Council has control over less than half of the income it raises.

Since 2010 the government has cut its grants to Leeds by £93m, this year’s grant represents a further cut of £33m and next years is planned to be cut by £46m. If my maths is right, Leeds’ income has been cut by fifth so far.

The Council Tax in Leeds will rise by just under 2%. Any rise is tough for families that are already struggling, but I think that this government plays on people’s poor mathematics to run scare stories about local councils. Mid range Council Tax bills in Leeds are around £1,000 a year, a 2% rise will increase that by £20 to £1,020. It’s not the same a 2% rise in the rate of Income Tax – probably the tax that most people understand best. That would cost someone on median income of £26,000 something like £500 a year.

Having raised this income of £566m, how does Leeds City Council spend it?

The biggest chunks go to Children’s Services and Adults Social Care – between them what used to be called Social Services. Just over £350m, nearly two thirds of the budget is spent on the most vulnerable in our society.

The problems faced by older people or troubled families don’t go away or reduce just because there is less public spending. In fact the reverse is more likely as money problems often cause family tensions. Plus we know that the elderly population is growing and life expectancy increasing.

So what happens? Other services get cut and the quality of care provided gets squeezed. I don’t know the situation in Leeds, but some councils now pay Care Homes less per resident than it costs to employ enough staff to care for the person at national minimum wage rates.

I hope that South Leeds Life can produce some reports that go into more detail about how the Council’s spending decisions will affect South Leeds. Keep an eye out over the coming weeks.

Jeremy Morton Aug13CSR from companies like Land Securities is very good and we desperately need their sticking plasters, given the levels of cuts in public provision. But actually we could do far more by increasing taxes at the top end and reversing those cuts. So despite what Jessie J sang I’m afraid it is about the money (money, money).

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.