I'm going to be very careful here because I don't want you all to think I've an issue with the concept of 'vulnerable' people or indeed our obligation to support them. But we need to look at how two factors are throwing a spanner into the works of local government (and the local delivery of services):
1. We're getting better at keeping people alive, which is great, but we're also getting better at giving those people a real life
2. We've realised that year on year real terms increases in the cost of government are unsustainable in an era of (relatively) low growth rates
The consequence of these two - somewhat contradictory - factors can be seen in stories like this:
Some householders in Greater Manchester are paying a private firm to empty their bins.Collecting the rubbish is, as far as most people are concerned, the main - they'll say "only" - service they get from their local council. Yet nearly every local council has now moved from weekly to fortnightly collections (all wrapped up in nice weasel words about recycling) and some are now creeping from every other week to every third week - even once-a-month.
Many are angry because some councils have reduced rubbish collections in an attempt to cut costs, and to motivate people to recycle more.
A local businessman who bought himself a truck eighteen months ago is now emptying up to 800 bins a week.
Many of you will have noticed how local roads are getting worse too. There's a simple reason for this - to maintain roads in Bradford over a 25 year cycle, we currently need between £10 million and £11 million spending on them every year. We're actually spending £7 million to £8 million. Even with efficiencies and new technology, those roads will deteriorate.
It's easy to blame austerity - "the cuts" - for this parlous state of affairs. After all that's the second of the two points above. But what you should appreciate is that, even without 'austerity' (which I'll define as spending by local councils remaining at 2010 levels) there would be huge pressures on those general services as a result of 'vulnerable people'.
To illustrate this, I'll talk about the police. Recently I met with a couple of senior coppers to discuss policing challenges in Bradford. For the police (even with, now, a relatively protected budget) there's real pressure on basic frontline service - 'bobbies on the beat' as we most often call it. This is because, quite understandably, the police have been told to give more attention to child sexual abuse, missing people (especially children) and getting better at dealing with people they encounter who have serious mental health problems. These new priorities - usually just added onto the old priorities - are very resource intensive. One missing girl takes up a great deal more police time than one house burglary meaning that more and more resource is redirected to this work with 'vulnerable people'.
For local councils (and here I'm talking about unitary authorities like Bradford) approaching 50% the spending we control is now directed to dealing with these 'vulnerable people'. And there aren't very many of such folk. Looking at the numbers in Bradford, between adult social care, children's social services and programmes in public health (drug and alcohol rehabilitation and so forth) we work with about 15,000 people out of Bradford's half-a-million population - that's 3% of the District's population taking up nearly 50% of the money spent by the Council. And the looking after is expensive - one out-of-district placement for a child with special support needs can cost up to £200,000 a year.
As a result of this, small changes in predicted numbers have a huge impact on budgets - 900 looked after children rather than the 850 we expected and there's a multi-million pound overspend. And other support extends too - we seldom used to get situations where learning disabled adults ended up as carers for their physically disabled parents but this is now happening because we've helped those learning disabled adults have a better, longer and happier life. I could go on - more old people living longer in their homes, disabled children who used to die in their teens are now living into their twenties and thirties and we've rightly decided that children in care shouldn't just be dumped in kindly but crowded children's homes.
The result of all this is that, in one way or another, we're going to end up paying more for things we once considered free. And, while taxation is one way of doing this, I'm not sure I want the council tax of a young family struggling to pay the rent or mortgage to go up and up so we can provide care for an older person living in a house worth £250,000 or more. Unfortunately the debate about funding local services is trapped in a model of property taxes plus grant that precludes alternatives - even in places trying radical approaches like Swindon the solution is based on taxes rather than charges.
Regardless of national funding settlements, local council spending will continue to shift onto personal support services and away from the universal visible services we tend to think of as what our council does. This rather brings into question both the purpose of the local council and also the means by which we fund local government. Property taxes make sense when the services are primarily directed to place rather than people (emptying bins, sweeping streets, fixing potholes, running parks and so forth) but make much less sense when those taxes are overwhelmingly directed to personal support.
I don't know the answer to all this but I am sure that our national debate needs to pay attention to these trends. As a conservative, I'm in favour of personal responsibility with a safety net - where people are able to pay they should pay - but I recognise that we've somehow got the "I've paid into the system, I'm entitled to free stuff" mindset to deal with if this is going to change. In the meantime, Councils will continue to scrimp with the result that you probably won't get your bin emptied so often, the roads will be poor and the park will be tatty.