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Leaders’ Debate: Starmer and Sunak debate plight of local councils

A final General Election leaders’ debate held in Nottingham highlighted the plight of dozens of local councils.

On Wednesday, June 26, Conservative Rishi Sunak and Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer went head-to-head in a debate hosted by the BBC at Nottingham Trent University eight days before polls open.

Broadcast live on BBC One, the programme saw both clash on immigration, taxes, Brexit and claims of MPs betting on the date of the election using inside knowledge.

Questions from a studio audience sparked several spiky exchanges between the pair, and the event had to contend with a loud pro-Palestinian protest outside the university.

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Discussion also turned to the plight of local councils, including Nottingham City Council, which declared itself effectively bankrupt in November.

The Labour-run council approved sweeping cuts to services and jobs in March as a result of its financial challenges and is currently consulting on the closure of four libraries.

Karen Duran, a children’s nurse at a local hospital, posed a question to both party leaders on the issue. She said: “I see families affected by libraries and children’s centres closing, how will you help councils after Nottingham City Council has effectively gone bankrupt?”

Sir Keir said: “This is a position for councils of all political stripes. Conservative-run councils have struggled for money and gone bankrupt as well because of the lack of adequate and proper, structured funding from the Government.”

He pledged to change the current funding settlement, so that money is given to councils over a three-year period rather than annually to help them make effective use of money.

Sir Keir also said he will stop no-fault evictions, to help take pressure off councils by reducing the number of people presenting as homeless.

However, he added: “I’m not going to stand here and say there is some magic wand I can wave and find money that isn’t there. Huge damage has been done to our economy, it is going to take time.”

Mr Sunak said: “In terms of funding councils we recently announced half a billion pounds, particularly for social care, which is where some of the big pressures are, and children’s services which you alluded to, and will continue to work with councils to provide the support they need.”

He further said he would continue to roll out family hubs, where families can get advice and support.

The leaders clashed over who was to blame for the financial woes in Nottingham.

Mr Sunak blamed Nottingham’s ruling Labour group for the problems. The collapse of council-run Robin Hood Energy in 2020 cost taxpayers an estimated £38m, and has often been pointed to as the main reason for the authority’s lack of financial resilience.

“But you mentioned Nottingham and that is a glimpse of the future. Nottingham City Council is bankrupt under Labour,” Mr Sunak said, before going on to use Labour-run Birmingham City Council as another example.

However, BBC moderator Mishal Husain countered his argument with the cases of the Woking and Thurrock councils. Woking’s previous Conservative administration has been criticised for making risky investments before its effective bankruptcy, while Thurrock also declared effective bankruptcy under Conservative leadership.

Sir Keir added: “Conservative councils are in exactly the same problem, what do you say about that?”

Since 2010, when the Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition came to power, Nottingham City Council has lost almost £100m every year in funding from the Government.

At the same time demand for social care and homelessness support has increased, meaning 80 per cent of the council’s budget now goes on these services alone.

Costs have also risen significantly, with increases largely put down to inflation – which soared to highs of 11 per cent in 2022 – as well as the cost of living crisis.

Asked if Mr Cleverly acknowledges the cuts to funding, he said: “In Conservative-run councils, where they have been well-run, well-managed, we have not seen the kind of economic collapse we have seen in Nottingham City Council.

•  Pictures: Huge protest balloon appears over Nottingham for leaders’ debate

•  Nottingham: Protest in the city ahead of Leaders  Debate

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