As councils across the UK set their budgets, the true cost of Covid-19 for children and young people is about to be revealed
Much has been written about the impact of the pandemic on young people. The last two years has resulted in huge disruption for us all. But for young people at such a vital time in their lives, the difficulties are vast.
The last time today’s year 11 cohort had a full year of undisrupted education, they would have been in year 8. Yet, so much happens for young people during this time. They’ve worked through losing access to time in the classroom, temporary closures of vital activities and a five per cent increase in young people experiencing poor mental health. These are just some of the barriers this generation has overcome. With a new variant already known to have entered the country, the disruption they’ve faced is, sadly, predicted to continue.
The pandemic has shown us clearly the inequalities that exist in our society and how they impact children and young people. Young people of colour, for example, were at stages during the pandemic twice as likely to have lost their jobs than their peers. Attendance rates among special schools were some of the lowest of all schools across the UK after they re-opened to all children. During the first lockdown, almost twice the number of private school pupils compared to state school pupils were benefiting from full school days.
On top of this, the number of looked after children is now at an all-time high, in part due to delays to the court system (resulting from the pandemic closures) and the lack of much-needed support for some families during lockdowns. Increasing child and family poverty has led to a greater need for more complex local services. This is a huge pressure not only on families but on councils budgeting for children’s care services too, which rely on government grants.
Rising costs to services
As Greens, we have long argued that targeted support is needed to reach children most at risk of disadvantage. But it’s never been more crucial than it is now.
And now, there is something dangerous coming over the horizon. The financial impact of the pandemic is hitting local councils to similar levels as last year; yet this year, there is little to no Government support.
With the impact of the pandemic continuing to be felt, and services struggling to regain lost ground, cost pressures to councils have increased. Backlogs need to be addressed, but funding is not available to match those pressures. For my own council, the rising numbers of children in care, set against a crisis in available placements, means that our costs have dramatically risen. The Local Government Association report that 8 in 10 councils are now overspending on children’s social care. Many councils, currently entering their budget setting periods, will be sadly putting forward further cuts to ensure core services still have a budget to work with.
The context is also vital. These cuts are just the tip of those that have had to be made from 2010, and every year since. After what has been described as the ‘ABC’ decade – austerity, Brexit and Coronavirus – there is greater demand for services but little left to hack at. Cuts have already contributed to rising inequalities, and it has often been the case that where cuts have needed to be made, young people have lost out. Figures from the YMCA, for example, show an estimated 73 per cent reduction in spending on youth services across the country.
The challenge for councils
After such a prolonged period of financial challenge, there is only so much that councils can now do to protect vital services. The demand for public services is still outstripping the resources available. Councils have lost 60p in every £1 through cuts since 2010, and austerity is far from over. Many vital services have already been lost – and even worse is to come.
In Brighton and Hove, Government cuts and increased pressures mean we have to find a predicted £18m to balance the books. With support from the Government drying up, this will mean some difficult choices. Promises of increased funding to councils also rely on the Government strategy of asking local areas to increase their council tax – but this only accounts for around 18 per cent of our local budget.
Yet, we remain focused on fairness. We are introducing a more generous council tax reduction scheme which allows more people on low incomes to see a reduced council tax bill. Seeing gaps in schemes provided by Government, we’ve set up our own self-isolation support for people on no to low incomes who are forced to isolate because of contracting Covid, with specific support to young people available too. We are working to increase funding to provide emergency food, and to fund programmes that help people heat their homes and react to the energy bills crisis.
We’ve also set up support for people to find new employment through our adult employment hub which offers opportunities to learn new skills. In addition, we’ve opened a young people specific youth employment hub to help 16–24-year-olds on Universal Credit find work.
The difficulty, however, remains. We are not able to provide everything we want to. So, while we are focussing as much support as possible on the most vulnerable – some of the savings we have to make will undoubtedly have an adverse impact.
How it can be fixed
The pandemic showed that the Government could find a magic money tree after all. When there was a need – vital funds were delivered. That need still exists, as the pandemic continues to have a far-reaching impact on all public services.
There is still time for the Government to recognise the need to do more for local public services. But the reality is, they are unlikely to do so. It suits the Tories to be able to put the blame on councils for their cuts, with smoke and mirrors about their spending announcements; forcing others to make difficult decisions on their behalf. When really, this is all about reducing the size of the state, removing local democracy and cutting back vital services from the centre.
We will continue to challenge these pernicious cuts and we’re proud to champion local services. Robust financial planning means Brighton & Hove has still maintained services many other councils have cut after 10 years of austerity. Despite this, councils remain in a really challenging state. For the future of children and young people, I will continue to do all I can to protect their futures, despite Tory government failure.