Ahead of the Chancellor’s presenting the Budget and Spending Review to the Commons next week, I have written to him to make the case for Oldham.
The letter can be read in full below.
AUTUMN BUDGET 2021
I am writing to you to make the case for Oldham in your forthcoming Budget.
The Conservative Government has made a commitment to ‘level up’ across the country. I welcome this.
I believe that given the challenges the people of Oldham are currently facing and have been facing over the last decade or so, Oldham should be a high priority for you.
For example, over the last 11 years while the Conservatives have been in power, life expectancy for Oldham women has decreased to 80.5 years, and life expectancy for men has barely changed at 77.17 years. This compares with the average life expectancy of a woman in England of 83.1 years and for a man of 79.4 years.
As you know, our life expectancy is an outcome of our socio-economic circumstances; these health inequalities – the difference in how long we’re going to live and live in good health – are not inevitable; they are driven by the political choices that are made, including in your Budget.
The Prime Minister has pledged to support Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s recommendations to Build Back Fairer after his Covid Review last December revealed the UK’s high and unequal Covid death toll was driven by structural inequalities and austerity. As such I urge you to ensure that ‘health and wellbeing’ is at the heart of your economic strategy, including this autumn’s Budget. This means that ‘levelling up’ is woven into all policies and investment decisions and is not just a casual add-on to various pet projects. To do this, you must assess the impacts of your policies on tackling inequality as they are being developed and most certainly, before they are implemented.
The second key principle is that you must decentralise power and control away from Westminster to our local communities, not just through local and regional elected representatives, but also directly. An example of this is listening to local communities about their views on planning. Local people and Oldham Council have consistently told the Government that the level of housing development that the Government wants is unrealistic and doesn’t reflect the needs of our population now or in the future. I’ve consistently said that when new homes are built, they must be on Brownfield sites first. To do this, the Government needs to increase the funding to help clean up any contaminated land.
Thirdly, investment must go to where it’s needed. This applies to all public spending. The last 11 years have seen a shameful disinvestment in funding for local authorities like Oldham by successive Conservative-Liberal Democrat and Conservative Governments. Oldham Council has had to make savings of more than £200m from their Budget over the last decade or so, halving its budget. Over the next two financial years, it is looking at having to cut another £30m in further budget savings. This austerity has seen local services cut or reduced as a direct result of these cuts to local authority funding. And yet analysis from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Centre for Cities reveals that it is metropolitan councils like Oldham that experience the biggest funding gaps. There’s also strong evidence showing a link between these cuts and declining life expectancy in areas like Oldham.
This must be recognised in the Budget and ensure that those areas with the most need are appropriately funded. You must not repeat the mistakes of last year by largely predicating any increase in local authority budgets on an assumption of a rise in council tax and the social care precept. In the current circumstances as my constituents face significant cost of living increases, including fuel, energy and food prices as well as the NICs increase, a Council Tax/social care precept increase for Oldhamers would be highly inappropriate.
Similarly, the NHS’ resource allocations must better reflect the health needs of our communities. The King’s Fund estimate that people in deprived areas are likely to wait twice as long for NHS treatments compared with people in more affluent areas; couple that with the unmet need that has plagued our system and the inequality in healthcare access is perpetuated. Despite being hugely let down by this Government’s lack of emergency preparedness, our public health teams have been magnificent during the Covid pandemic. In addition to infectious disease control their work covers disease prevention and health improvement. But their budgets are already 24% lower than 2015. With Covid infections at such high levels, it is a matter of time before another variant of concern, potentially resistant to the vaccinations, emerges. If the Government has learned from their mistakes over the last 20 months, if they are serious about protecting our citizens and protecting our most vulnerable, to ‘levelling up’ this must be addressed. Related to this, the Contain Outbreak Management Fund is due to come to an end in March. Discontinuing this funding would further expose not just Oldham but the country to future Covid outbreaks. It would be wholly irresponsible of the Government.
I share the Government’s vision for a high skill, high pay economy. However, areas like Oldham are further away from this reality than others. This requires appropriate investment within our education and training systems in recognition of this. But 11 years on, your Government’s pre-pandemic action to address Oldham’s educational challenges and the inequalities that our children and young people face has been woefully inadequate. As we emerge from the Pandemic, you must listen to our educators about the catch-up support that they need, reflecting the higher numbers of teaching days lost as a result of additional local Covid restrictions. Similarly, the failure to fully fund Oldham schools the pupil premium for those pupils who had become eligible for free school meals as a result of the pandemic is reprehensible. Over a thousand Oldham children missed out on this extra support worth £1,249,575. This must be rectified.
Oldham’s economy reflects our industrial heritage. Our future success will depend on: investment in ‘green’ industries and technologies, increased business investment in the workforce and infrastructure, retraining/reskilling Oldhamers for new work and increased physical and virtual connectivity. We welcome the £24.4m in Town Funding for Oldham town centre; however, this predominantly capital funding barely scratches the surface in tackling the needs of our borough.
Climate action must start at home. By investing £28bn every year until 2030 to tackle the climate crisis, we can protect the planet and create good quality, secure jobs in Oldham and across the UK. As COP hosts, the UK should be leading the way, but while the USA is pressing on with a $1 trillion green infrastructure plan and Germany and France are pouring tens of billions of euros into low-carbon initiatives, the Government’s 10-Point Plan entailed just £4 billion of new funding, £1 billion of which was then scrapped alongside the disastrous Green Homes Grant scheme. It doesn’t come close to matching the scale of the jobs crisis or the climate emergency we face, and it is undermining the credibility of our COP Presidency.
I have been campaigning for several years to address the abuse of late payments to small businesses where 45% of UK workers are employed. Late payments are a key issue for small businesses and currently stand at £50bn. I urge you to implement my Project Bank Account Bill to protect small businesses not only from late payments but also bankruptcy should Tier 1 supplier companies collapse, as we saw with Carillion. Ironically, my late payment campaign started because an Oldham haulier was going out of business because of these late payments.
In the meantime, while Oldham businesses invest to increase their productivity and Oldhamers upskill to get better paid jobs, the 11,000 currently in low paid work and reliant on Universal Credit and their 22,500 children, must be adequately supported. The Budget must reinstate £20 per week for Universal Credit or provide equivalent social security support. They must not be allowed to fall into debt, rent arrears and worse or they will struggle to recover leaving another generation in the cycle of poverty too many experience.
I urge you to support the Greater Manchester Mayor’s ‘Levelling Up Deal’ which is a serious, positive offer to Government to deliver a London-style transport network with affordable London-level fares, accelerating Greater Manchester’s plans for a net zero future with better, greener homes and communities, as well as better jobs and skills. It can’t be right that a single bus fare is £1.50 in London but £4.40 across Greater Manchester, including areas of multiple deprivation.
Finally, I urge you to address the systemic issues in our society which sees two women a week die at the hands of their partners or ex-partners. Violence against women and girls, including sexual exploitation, has remained hidden and unchallenged for too long. That has to change now. It requires leadership and we hope you can demonstrate this in your Budget.
I look forward to your response.
This letter will be put in the public domain.
Debbie Abrahams MP
Oldham East and Saddleworth