8 Dec 2023
Stephen Conway

Many thanks to those residents who took the trouble to write to Michael Gove, the secretary of state responsible for local government, to press the case for a  fairer financial deal from central government for Wokingham.  Well in excess of 700 borough residents wrote to Mr Gove and I'm pleased to say that your efforts have made a difference.

Mr Gove's minister for local government, Simon Hoare, wrote to me last week to thank me 'and the residents of Wokingham' for writing to the secretary of state.  His letter goes on to describe what the government is already doing (which we knew about) but ends very helpfully by saying 'I have asked officials in the Local Government Finance team to meet with officers from Wokingham Borough Council'.  In other words, the council now has the chance to discuss with government officials its particular concerns about the formula used to allocate funding support to local authorities.

Our concern, as I've explained before, is that we receive the lowest level of core service funding from central government, per head of population, of any English unitary authority (councils with responsibility for all council services, including Children's and Adult social care).   True, the council successfully bids for one-off sums from government to support particular schemes, but these are usually capital funds - to build a road or a school, for example - which cannot be used to cover ongoing costs of delivering services.  

The reason for this low level of core service funding is the way the government calculates need.  The funding formula is based almost entirely on measures of socio-economic deprivation.  Wokingham does not score highly by these definitions of need, for although we have many people who are struggling financially, we have a good number who are very well off and the average level of wealth is therefore higher than in almost all council areas.

The current funding formula, however, takes no account of the very great demand we face in Children's and Adult social care.  In these areas, complex cases often require very significant resources to allow mentally or physically disabled members of our community to negotiate challenges that most of us are fortunate enough never to encounter personally.  Wokingham has the highest proportion of people with learning difficulties, per head of population, of almost any council in the land.  Yet the government's funding formula pays no regard to these considerable spending pressures.

We are not asking for special favours, or to be given more money than councils that have to support populations that have a high proportion of people in financial hardship; it's right and proper that socio-economic need is the primary determinant of where government service funding support goes.  

All we are asking for is some recognition of the financial pressures created for the council by high levels of demand in Children's and Adult social services.

Your help has brought this important matter onto the government's agenda.  Whether ministers will ultimately do what we hope is, of course, another matter, but at least a dialogue is starting, which is a step in the right direction.

So, to all those who wrote to Mr Gove, a very big thank you.

Cllr Stephen Conway