Why are our councils going bust? | Crooked Media
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January 25, 2024
Pod Save the UK
Why are our councils going bust?

In This Episode

1 in 5 local councils in England is in danger of going bankrupt within the next two years – it’s a growing crisis that Westminster has done its best to ignore. With their budgets continually slashed, council leaders are faced with sometimes impossible choices about which services can be funded and which have to be axed. Nish and Coco discuss the crisis with a council leader, Joe Harris, and a ‘policy wonk’ Zoe Billingham. As they chat it emerges that Michael Gove has committed an extra £500 million into the pot for next year. Our guests verdict? It won’t touch the sides.


Meanwhile in Westminster, is it a rebellion if it’s only one person rebelling? Plus introducing your new favourite Conservative group…the Popular Conservatives or PopCons! Nish is obviously delighted to hear about another SFG (or stupid fucking group), especially as this one has a certain Liz Truss attached to it.


Also find out what Ministers Lucy Frazer and Hugh Merriman did to jointly take the villain of the week crown, while the hero of the week goes to a judge who defended the honour of the poppadom. 


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Joe Harris, vice chair of the Local Government Association, and the Lib Dem leader of Cotswold District Council

Zoë Billingham, the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) North think tank


Audio credits:

Sky News

BBC News / Laura Kuenssberg




Nish Kumar Hi, this is Pod Save the UK.


Coco Khan I’m Coco Khan.


Nish Kumar And I’m Nish Kumar.


Coco Khan This week we’re leaving the Westminster bubble behind to focus on the politics that really matter to our everyday lives.


Nish Kumar Our councils are going bankrupt and that affects the local services we all rely on.


Coco Khan It’s the crisis that no one wants to talk.


Nish Kumar About apart from us. We’ll be joined by Joe Harris, a council leader and vice president of the Local Government Association, and Zoe Billingham, the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research North.


Coco Khan Hi, Nish.


Nish Kumar Hi, Coco. How are you?


Coco Khan Do you want the the real answer?


Nish Kumar Are we starting off?


Coco Khan Yeah.


Nish Kumar This is like when the Fresh Prince does a very special episode.


Coco Khan Yeah, yeah.


Nish Kumar This is a serious issues episode.


Coco Khan It’s it’s not. It’s really not. But basically I’m knackered. Yeah, because I’ve been having mad dreams. I mean, I’ve always had very vivid dreams. Always. But, you know, I’m doing dry January now. I’m meant to be sleeping better.


Nish Kumar Right. Yeah. Yeah.


Coco Khan No. Not better. It’s like all the little weird goblins that live inside my brain are like not. They’re not being kind of held back by Malibu and Cokes. No, I know they’re like, oh, yeah. Here we go, baby. Like flying around like Dementors in my mind.


Nish Kumar Are the dreams nightmares?


Coco Khan Well, this is the thing.


Nish Kumar Oh, just very vivid.


Coco Khan A little bit of both. Right. Last night, I had a dream that someone that I used to work with and I decided to embezzle one of his rich relatives. So we faked a marriage. And at some point, we have to go on the run, like, kind of Bonnie and Clyde and this kind of wealthy relative that we’re embezzling. He’s quite grotesque. He’s always got egg yolk over his face, and he’s really, like, sort of old and posh. And he lives in this grand old house and it’s red, red curtains and oak panels everywhere. And there’s also some sort of light nudity coming on with other minor characters, but in this kind of scary way.


Nish Kumar Light nudity, what does that mean?


Coco Khan Just like passing characters in the dream. Do you know what I mean?


Nish Kumar They’re just nude.


Coco Khan Yeah, but always in, like, a it’s kind of erotic, but then also is kind of horrifying. Maybe they’ve got, like, six foot nipples or something. Do you know what I mean?


Nish Kumar I find all nudity equal parts erotic and horrifying.


Coco Khan I was just watching this. Then I woke up this morning like that and with the words we need to buy Ribena. Just knocking it round my head. Yeah. I’m just. I’m really frazzled. It’s been going on for weeks.


Nish Kumar I don’t understand how you taking alcohol out of your diet has caused your subconscious to run a muck.


Coco Khan I don’t get it either.


Nish Kumar I think we need to start keeping track. I think you need to keep a dream journal at least until the end of dry January. Other than that big week for me, my tour’s gone on sale. Oh, wow. Oh UK tour has gone on sale UK and Ireland. Although the people of Ireland are understandably frustrated with me referring to it as a UK and Ireland tour because I’m doing a UK tour and I’m doing one day in Dublin, so.


Coco Khan Right.


Nish Kumar I’d like to apologize to the people of Ireland, for only doing a Dublin date. The tour is called Nish, Don’t Kill My Vibe.


Coco Khan That’s good. I like that. That’s really good. Yeah.


Nish Kumar It’s fun.


Coco Khan Yeah.


Nish Kumar Yeah. It’s fun. And as usual, I’ve been nailing the promo. I tried to tweet some pictures, but I tweeted them to low read so nobody could read any of the information.


Coco Khan But for clarity, are you going to kill vibe?


Nish Kumar So I well, my stand up is has been described as vibe killing. It’s funny. It’s just not fun. There’s there’s people laugh a lot, but they also are reminded that everything.


Coco Khan That’s like when people are like, oh, you know, I love my family, but I don’t like them. Oh, okay, then I know what to.


Nish Kumar Make of it. I think we can all agree this has been another fantastic plug. Tickets available at NishKumar.co.uk.


Nish Kumar [AD]


Nish Kumar At Westminster this week, there was more Tory infighting as former cabinet minister Simon Clarke. Although when we say former cabinet minister, he was in cabinet for a month under Liz Truss anyway, he wrote a telegraph op ed calling on the party to replace Rishi Sunak as leader to avoid what he called sleepwalking towards an avoidable annihilation at the next election. But instead of firing the starter pistol on another leadership race, it’s gone down like a bucket of sake with his colleagues. The times reported that senior Tories have turned on him, with former Home secretary Priti Patel calling his antics divisive self-indulgence. And apparently, according to various reports, the reaction on Tory WhatsApp groups is get behind the PM or get lost. I say you can and will do both. Conservative party you will get behind the PM and their view will get lost, I suspect.


Coco Khan Meanwhile, in the Commons, the Prime Minister updated MPs following another round of airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen.


Clip Last night we hit two military sites just north of Sana’a, each containing multiple specific targets which the Hutus used. To support their attacks on shipping. And Mr. Speaker, I want to be very clear we are not seeking a confrontation. We urge the Houthis and those who enable them to stop these illegal and unacceptable attacks. But if necessary, the United Kingdom will not hesitate to respond again in self-defense.


Coco Khan While some MPs, particularly on the Labour left, have voiced concerns over escalating tensions in the region. The Labour leadership is backing the government on this. Although Keir Starmer wasn’t briefed beforehand, he said he supported the targeted action, which was carried out together with the US.


Nish Kumar Elsewhere in Labour news, Labour is showing no signs of cozying up to the SNP. The party has dismissed an invitation from Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf for them to meet to discuss a future working relationship, despite Humza Yousaf trying to batter up the leader by saying it was inevitable that Starmer would be prime minister.


Clip When I speak to Keir Starmer, I hope he takes me up on the invitation. To me, that would be the grown up and responsible thing for him to do that I will advocate for a second independence referendum, because I’ve got all of the reasons why I think our mandate has been ignored over the years, and I hope you’ll take a, respectful approach to listening to Scotland’s voice.


Nish Kumar That’s Humza Yousaf speaking to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. And that working relationship always feels unlikely because there’s too many Labour MPs that have a recent memory being burned by the 2015 Tory election campaign, where the Conservative Party ran a series of attack ads with Alex Salmond with Ed Miliband in his pocket, and tried to push the idea that a Labour government would lead to the collapse of the union. So whatever people might think about the practicality of a Labour SNP pact, I think it’s pretty unlikely to happen.


Coco Khan This week, we also saw an embarrassing fail from the government on one of the the few universally welcome changes they’ve managed to bring in. That’s the free childcare for two year olds, the rollout of a scheme to provide 15 hours per week free childcare to some working parents from April, has been hit by delays and an IT meltdown. The government is insisting no families will miss out and is writing to parents with a workaround for the IT issue. But campaigners say the government is in total denial over the problem.


Nish Kumar And look, with all of these problems facing the country with that IT meltdown system, that’s going to affect a huge number of people. The conservatives, to be fair to them, have been focused on what is really important, forming another stupid fucking group and SFG. The Conservative Party absolutely loves to form so stupid fucking groups as FGS. There’s the New Conservatives, the Conservative Growth group, the Common Sense Group, and now there is a new SFG, Popular Conservativism which is abbreviated to Pop Con and is a new movement aiming to restore democratic accountability to Britain and deliver popular conservative policies. And the old reverse Midas herself, Liz Truss, is involved. So I think we can all expect this to go very, very badly. It’s just another group just designed to create pressure on Rishi Sunak from the right of the party. And, you know, I just think it’s great to see them focusing on the priorities that the people of this country have. More stupid fucking good. I want that to be more. I want there to be more speeches eventually. I want the Tory party conference to just be a string of seething groups of people who all hate each other but are stood on the different, separate banners.


Coco Khan I wonder how many more like kind of everyman terms they can find, you know what I mean?


Nish Kumar I mean, calling yourself popular is like me describing myself as a ladies man. It’s not a term you should attach to yourself. And anyway, it’s hugely inaccurate. I like the fact that they’re taking their policy of just declaring Rwanda to be a safe country into the name, because the idea groups, we just declaring ourselves popular. Yeah.


Coco Khan Westminster politics tends to suck up all the attention. But there’s a growing political crisis happening right on our doorstep. Our councils are going bust. That potentially affects all of us. And the areas affected are countless. From our bins to our parks, our libraries are leisure centers. It could affect transport services that help the elderly get out and about. Not to mention youth clubs that keep young people off the streets.


Nish Kumar Nearly 1 in 5 councils in England expects to declare bankruptcy within the next 15 months. Back in 2008, Northamptonshire County Council became the first local authority for 20 years to have to issue a section 114 notice. This means the council is effectively declaring bankruptcy and all new spending, with the exception of protecting vulnerable people and statutory services, must stop immediately. Since then, they’ve been followed by Slough, my hometown, Croydon, Thurrock, Woking, Birmingham City and Nottingham City.


Coco Khan The Local Government Association estimates that councils in England face a deficit of at least 3 billion over the next two years. The latest places to sound warnings about imminent financial collapse include Stoke on Trent, Middlesbrough, Somerset, Bradford and Cheshire East.


Nish Kumar With an election on the horizon. There are signs that Westminster is starting to take the problem seriously, and this week more than 40 Tory MPs signed a letter to Rishi Sunak and the leveling up secretary, Michael Gove, warning that millions of people in traditionally safe Tory seats were facing a double whammy of cuts to local services and higher council tax rates.


Coco Khan Here with us in the studio is Joe Harris, vice chair of the Local Government Association and the Lib Dem, leader of Cotswold District Council in the West of England. And joining us from Liverpool is Zoe Billingham, the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research North. It’s a think tank which has published research into local councils and the funding challenges they face. Hi guys.


Joe Harris Hello.


Zoe Billingham Hi there.


Nish Kumar Thanks so much for joining us, Joe. Briefly, before we start properly getting into this conversation, you have been a councilor since you were 1918.


Joe Harris So since you were 18. And it’s one of those things I keep. I’m 39 and I keep going. Right. This would be. This would be the last year. All I’ve ever known is austerity as well. So, you know.


Nish Kumar Wait, what year was that? I’m not quick enough to do the math.


Joe Harris 2011.


Nish Kumar 2011. Okay. Right okay.


Joe Harris Yeah, I get described now as a veteran councelor at the age of 30, which I don’t know whether to be thrilled or terrified, to be honest.


Nish Kumar I think it’s only you and Premier League footballers that can be 30 and veterans.


Joe Harris Yeah. I mean, I’m going to be retiring soon.


Coco Khan I definitely had the moment when you came in. I was like, he looks a bit young. I know you didn’t get that moment being like, he looks my age, so either he’s young or I’m old.


Nish Kumar Is it true that your girlfriend has been telling you to get a real job?


Joe Harris You know I wouldn’t say a


Nish Kumar I don’t know how you.


Joe Harris Real job.


Nish Kumar I don’t know how the producers have got that information.


Joe Harris Yeah, I think it’s more. Have you considered doing something else that maybe, you know, pays decently and can provide you with a future?


Coco Khan Zoe, let’s bring you in here. Can you sum up


Nish Kumar Is anyone telling you to get a real job, Zoe?


Zoe Billingham Well, I’m a policy wonk, so. Absolutely. Yes.


Coco Khan So can you sum up the situation that the councils are facing?


Zoe Billingham Since we’re a total make or break moment for local councils. This has been going on for some time. So councilors up and down the country will know that since 2010, we’ve seen massive cuts to local government budgets, and they’ve lost about a quarter of their spending power. But the the heavy bit of those cuts has come from government central government’s decision to cut grants to local authorities. So it’s very much been in the hands of the government, this decision to really strip back what local government can now provide. And we’re really at a crisis moment, as you said. You know, we’re seeing councils becoming effectively bankrupt. We’re seeing services scale back and ended, and we’re even seeing kind of what is their statutory duties in social services that’s providing adult and child social care. We’re seeing what statutory minimum means tested to its limit because some councils are having to go, yes, we have to protect these vulnerable people. But actually what what can we what can we do to make it viable? Well, we have to actually even scale back what we’re offering our most vulnerable residents. So we’re really at a crisis point. And it’s, you know, far in about time that Westminster woke up to get to the issues in local government.


Nish Kumar So when you say we’re it make or break point, can you just talk us through what the break half of that looks like? Because, because it’s a sort of under discussed issue in the national press. I don’t think we’re fully cognizant of how big a threat this is.


Zoe Billingham So I think there’s, in my mind, kind of been three phases, the very early phases of kind of cuts to local government. Right back in 2010 and 11, you know, that the decision of central government to cut the grant to local government made local government go, okay, well, what can we do a bit differently? Can we do things more effectively with less? And it was a sort of entry period, if you will, to the face of austerity. Then we moved to another period where. Simply kind of certain services. We’re going to just have to be scaled back. You know, a community bus, less regular leisure centers, you know, fewer in your local area. And now we’re in what I say is a break moment because there’s a real fundamental question about what local government can provide at all. And so now we’re not just going to be talking about scaling back services, but getting rid of them entirely. So that’s why I say it’s a make or break moment, because this is a kind of moment of redefinition of what local government can do in less central government. And Westminster sort of wakes up to to the harsh reality of this and decides to chart a different course and, and fund them properly.


Nish Kumar So, Joe, you you just said you kind of enter the fray in 2011, right at the start of the period. So he’s talking about what what was that like stepping into local government and then immediately being told, essentially you’re going to have your funding cut.


Joe Harris Any councilor who gets elected, usually they’re doing it because they want to improve the local area as an issue they’ve got involved with. It doesn’t tend to be people that are hyper political and want to set up a on a parliamentary career, so not the Lib Dems. But, you very quickly realize that you’re working within a very centralized framework for so much of what councils do. Actually, the rules are set by government, so there’s not really a lot of autonomy. Certainly in terms of being able to, to raise money. And of course, that then limits what you’re able to do on the ground. And so we said we’ve had funding reductions, that core grant that we, you know, pot of money each council gets from. Government has been reducing and reducing and reducing. And the issues that council have had is we we haven’t been able to raise the money to cover the loss in that funding. The government, for example, cap the amount related to raising council tax. And they also limit the way in which we can raise other forms of, income. So it’s really, really difficult. So if you’re setting out, you know, try and improve your area, usually you have a pretty quick reality check. So yeah, it’s really frustrating.


Coco Khan So Joe, you’re vice chair of the LGA, but you’re also a council leader from Cotswolds district. I associate the Cotswold with quite a well-heeled, well-to-do, wealthy area. I mean, how’s how’s your council doing?


Joe Harris Yeah. Like anywhere. You know, we’re struggling. The council is struggling. Yes. We’re a wealthy area, but we’ve got, you know, massive financial, challenges, rising demand and our funding being cut. And we’re not able to raise the income to to meet the demand and also cover the money that we’re that we’re losing. So what does that look like in real terms? You’ve mentioned waste collections for many councils used to be weekly. Most are now fortnightly. And some councils are even talking about moving to, I mean, every, every three weeks. And we talk about statutory services. Well, you know, our council historically has done a lot of non-statutory services. So that’s nice things like the leisure center that people rely on. That’s nice thing like the community outreach that, that our communities team take part of. And, you know, if we keep going on the way, we’re going down, then there’s not really going to be any non-statutory services left. And in many cases, that is that is the case. People look to their council for leadership, but we don’t have the funding and we don’t have the powers to be able to do anything about it.


Nish Kumar These are figures that have come from the Institute for government. The, grants from central government were cut by 40% in real terms between 2000 and 910 and 2019 20, from 46.5 billion pounds to 28 billion pounds. So that are there’s no way that that can not have had a huge impact in the ways that councils are operating, the ways they’re able to spend money. But up until this point, where it’s now conservative MPs that are banging the drum about this, the government has been very happy to portray this as profligate Labour councils that have, you know, essentially just wasted money that was being given to them. I mean, in example, my home town of Croydon, the council there at the time was Labour on and was accused of making a series of, bad property investments. And the question that I’ve never been able to answer is, why on earth was Croydon Council engaged in property investment? It didn’t make any sense to me. Jo, do you have any insight into why that would be?


Joe Harris Yeah, well, councils have done property over the years to varying degrees and haven’t gone bankrupt. Yeah. During the coalition government. Certainly. Eric Pickles, I remember Eric Pickles, he, he was encouraging councils to invest in property and invest in other things, use public borrowing in order to invest in things that would then give councils an income in future. So I was actually encouraged by the government about ten, ten years ago. And clearly the landscape has changed massively since then. We’ve had a pandemic, we’ve had huge inflation with war in Ukraine and so on and so forth. And of course, those councils are perhaps made riskier. Decisions have ended up with a massive bill and in some instances of have gone bankrupt. But to say it’s just, you know, one party is absolute. Woking was conservative. and I was in Labour councils and I’m sure in future we’ll see Lib Dem councils. But the common theme with all of them, actually, this isn’t a debate about dodgy investments. Yeah, this is just about council funding. But unless level that can fund those, key services that people rely on, that’s what we’re asking for here. If you fund this properly and give us the opportunity to be able to raise money, then we’re not going to be running into bankruptcy notices and so on and so forth.




Coco Khan So let me ask you, because I noticed that all the councils that are under threat or have declared themselves bankrupt are all in England. Is there something about devolution that has inoculated Scottish and Welsh councils?


Zoe Billingham Well, you’re quite right to go that, local government is a devolved matter to, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. But of course it’s done by through a formula. So they still have a knock on impact of Westminster decisions on their councils, and they’re still subject to some of the same pressures that we see in England. You know, when you speak to communities across the country, when you’re doing doorknocking or doing focus groups, so whatever people don’t, you know, categorize, oh, that’s a local government thing. That’s an MP thing. That’s a mayor thing. That’s a Welsh government thing. They just want stuff to work. They just want public services to function properly. So it’s no surprise that now it’s MPs who are starting to kind of clearly get some of the political heat for the decisions being made in Westminster that are impacting on local government, and they’re suddenly going, well, hang on a minute. We’re going to start getting the blame to them with an election coming up. Of course, that’s exactly what they don’t want.


Nish Kumar So does that mean so you think the people are now joining the dots with, because they’ve gone from being angry with their local governments to realizing that actually this is a central government problem as well.


Zoe Billingham I think that’s right. And, you know, we’ve just seen a new announcement this morning that potentially, central government will put another 500 million into local government for the next financial settlement. And that’s all well and good. But again, that kind of leaves local government at the mercy of, you know, the decisions of central government, like will they won’t they. Oh, here’s a surprise bang here. So it kind of very much shows actually that the power, the control is in central government hands.


Coco Khan You mentioned that 500 million pounds bung, I believe, was what you said, which is great way to put it. What do you reckon, Joe? Is it going to touch the sides?


Joe Harris No, I mean, it’s an eighth of what we need. All the, you know, all councils need just to stand still. It’s great that these MPs are suddenly woken up to this. We have been banging and lobbying MPs for years now on this, and it was interesting to say that Robert Jenrick was one of those MPs. He was the Secretary of State for councils for for a few years. So it’s just yeah, it does not your confidence. I was talking to a conservative council leader, a few weeks ago and he basically said, it does just feel like the government are taking the piss out of councils. You know, we’re an easy target. We get the blame on the ground. And it’s just a good deflection tactic for government. So and it’s hard when you look at all the evidence not to sort of they’re not sort of take that and think, well yeah it’s it’s pretty accurate. So you know we’ll work with anybody whether it’s a new Labour government, whether it’s a conservative government or coalition or whatever. We just need funding certainty and we just need whichever government is to have an idea of what they want local government to do and to look like. I think that’s the key point.


Nish Kumar So, I mean, you’ve mentioned Eric Pickles and Robert Jenrick, who both sort of had responsibility for communities and local governments, at a ministerial level, various points in the last decade. And one of them encouraged people to make investments that might potentially have been risky. And the other one sort of did nothing and is now somehow trying to portray himself as having bang the drum for this issue, even though he didn’t do anything. But he could have done something.


Joe Harris Yeah, really, really, really frustrating. I think the other key point, and I hate I hate to talk about Brexit, but that whole debate really swallowed up a lot of parliamentary time. So quite often there wasn’t time to talk about important things in parliament, like council funding, social services, social care. This is the other big unresolved issue, which is a huge ticking time bomb. So you had Brexit, then you have the pandemic, you’ve had everything going on. So it does. We never get the time we deserve as local councils in Parliament, and that’s all we’re asking for certainty and a bit more funding and some more powers.


Coco Khan We definitely stack a crisis to crisis here in the UK, it feels like that.


Nish Kumar Yeah, it is very strange. I always find it quite odd when Brexit gets talked about in the same breath as the pandemic. It’s it’s a very strange thing if this thing that we voted for that we now talk about at bracket is the same as a thing that was like a killer disease. Yeah. But anyway, let’s let’s not get into that, but it’s just worth, highlighting for a second the scale of this crisis. And one of the best ways to do that is just to briefly talk about Birmingham, the financial collapse late last year of the largest local authority in the country, Birmingham City Council, should have been the tipping point for a more serious conversation about this. It was tipped into bankruptcy by its mishandling of an equal pay claim and 100 million pound IT project, and last week the council said that up to 600 jobs could be made redundant as it struggles with its huge debt. Now youth services are one of many areas facing big cuts. Nathan Dennis is the. Founder and trustee of Birmingham youth charity First Class Foundation. And he told us that he dreads to think what the fallout of that would be.


Clip I’m concerned because in 2010, when we had austerity measures and in Birmingham we had approximately 18 youth services closed. We seen a significant impact in young people getting involved with anti-social behavior. Youth crime increasing or new violence increasing. And then not to add the pressure that we’re kind of facing or we see from our charity perspective. It’s a fallout from Covid 19. There’s still a lot of people out in terms of young people struggling with their mental health and struggling to get back into terms of socialization and what our youth services do. The city council. Run and provided is correct. Safe spaces for young people to have an appropriate adult where they can connect with. Get mentorship from their counseling prompt, get advice from, well, you know, we’re going to work with our partners. That’s across private sector public. It’s important to say that we’re never going to give up on our young people. Our city, our city is a very resilient city, and no matter what comes against us, we will always persevere and overcome.


Nish Kumar Joe, what’s your reaction to hearing something like that?


Joe Harris Yeah. It’s amazing. He’s so positive. He went off so positively to be honest, because it’s so difficult. And youth provision is one of the reasons I got involved. In Gloucestershire. So my county area used to have responsibility for, service but don’t have anything anymore.


Coco Khan Wow.


Joe Harris There aren’t any youth clubs. So, you know, ten, 15 years on from from the cuts, we got urban street gangs in Little market towns in the Cotswolds. And you know that the chap that is in Birmingham, it’s going to be more acute, you know, in, in urban centers. So the really difficult thing about something like youth services, it’s on a spreadsheet. It’s quite hard to quantify success because quite often success is five, ten, 15 years down, down the road when hopefully, you know, funding is falling and people aren’t going to prison. So it’s really difficult. And of course, if you’re a civil servant in the, in the ministry, for leveling up housing and whatever else is in the title. That’s really, that’s really, really difficult because I just, I wish I was, you know, show us value for money and it’s really hard to do that. On an issue like youth services where you can’t immediately see the see the outcomes.


Coco Khan So we’re hearing a lot of talk about tax cuts from Sunak and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt. However, a YouGov poll found that 62% of voters think the government should prioritize spending more on public services. Does that surprise you? That’s a big gap between Westminster and the voters.


Joe Harris You know, like I canvasing it pretty much every week. I’m not meeting anybody saying we really want our tax cut. Most people are saying, I want the bus to turn up at the end of my road. I don’t want my hospital to have, you know, queues out the door and I want to be able to get a GP appointment. So who are these people asking for tax cuts? Because I’m not meeting them. Maybe I’m talking to the wrong people and I’m in quite a conservative area, you would argue, in Gloucestershire. So I think most people just want local services to, to work. And I think most people actually would consider, you know, paying a little bit more tax perhaps, in order to do that. But that’s on the proviso that they can actually see things improving, because at the minute people pay more tax and everything seems to get worse. So we need to really have a look at how local governments are funded. Maybe it’s time for a more fundamental review of local government and how it’s funded and what it looks like. And of course, the last time that happened was the poll tax, which as we know.


Coco Khan It didn’t go down well.


Joe Harris It didn’t go down well. Yeah. And I think it’s probably why politicians nationally don’t really want to touch on council tax and council funding. So we’ve got a the issue needs to be sorted one way or another. You need a government, whoever it is who has a clear idea of what local government can do and you should do, you know, that is really, really important.


Coco Khan Okay. So imagining it’s Labour. Zoe, do you can you foresee any difference? I mean, at the minute, they’re promising to not spend vastly different to the Tories.


Zoe Billingham Well, I think we’ve got to kind of reconfigure what we see is just straight up spending versus investment. It’s not just a deadweight cost. It really is an investment in the future. So I think to any party that comes in at the next general election, I would be absolutely making that case that, you know, prevention and investment in our communities is the right way forward and will be the only way to kind of set us up for a sustainable future, rather than these short term bungs that local government are receiving. And there’s also a connection to the devolution agenda in England alone. So we’ve seen, you know, the increased number of metro mayors we have across the country. And of course, you know, combined authorities, metro mayors in their areas are made up of local authorities that are on current trajectory, going to be failing, over the next few years as we see more and more local authorities going under. So that will also undermine a kind of flagship agenda of both the current government, but also the Labour Party to pursue more mayors, more devolution, but at the same time kind of taking the rug from under the feet of those leaders. So I think it’s going to have so many interactions with the rest of what, the next government might try to do that. There’s going to have to be a fundamental look at either. Accepting that local government is fundamentally changed fundamentally, does lessen the size of the state is smaller, or, you know, looking at really what realistically it needs in terms of funding.


Nish Kumar So just in brief, if you picked up any positive signs from Labour.


Joe Harris Not really. No. Being brutally honest, I think Angela Rayner, who would be the Secretary of State for Local government, has mentioned something. By building more Council Heights is great. I haven’t heard anything on on on government funding and that’s something I’ve got Labour colleagues within local government who are lobbying within that party and Tories I’m doing in the Lib Dems. So, you know, we’re all beavering away to make sure that this is reflected in manifestos. But I haven’t heard anything yet, from the Labour side or indeed from the conservative side, that leads me to believe anything is going to get better after a general election.


Coco Khan If there was a new model for local government funding, what do you think it could be?


Zoe Billingham So I think we need to re reassess the needs of our local areas. That was done last ten years ago, looking at the kind of demand, the change in demographic people living longer and in poorer health, and all these increases and demands and pressures on local governments, we need to reassess the need. And when we do that, there will be a re reassessment of where needs most support from central government. And I think combined with that, we’ll need to make sure that, however, the Treasury calculates how local government finance is distributed, that deprivation is taken into account, and deprived local authorities who have the greatest need on their services are given disproportionately more to make sure the system is progressive and catering for our most vulnerable. And then thirdly, are there things that local government could do more of themselves, whether that’s devolving certain taxes or allowing them to have more financial scope locally to, kind of help decide themselves about the level of service provision and the level of taxation and charges that they want to to provide. So I think that’s the three things that we’re going to need to see the next government do.


Nish Kumar Every time we on the show talk about something to do with the steadily collapsing nature of the country around us, it so much of it comes back to decisions that were taken in the early era of the coalition government, and specifically the kind of austerity policies that were enacted by David Cameron and George Osborne. I’m sort of not expecting either of you to take this question seriously, but does it not just boil your piss that one of them is Foreign Secretary, and the other one gets to host a stupid fucking podcast with his idiot friend like that? And I think the serious thing that I’m trying to ask is, have we ever really appraised the damage? That austerity is done to this country, because we’re still in a climate where the prevailing political conversation amongst the we assume outgoing government and the assumed incoming government is one of spending is reckless. And the way to show financial prudence is by cutting things and restricting the amount of money that you spend. But is it financially prudent when the entire country stopped working? Are you does not just like, live it? I’m furious that these two are still totally.


Zoe Billingham Totally, totally pissed off. And if I see another podcast of yeah, as you say to to a man of a certain age kind of congratulating each other on the kind of funny quips from the time of austerity, you know, it is absolutely infuriating, that, that that they’ve still got the mic, if you will. They still got the mic. They still got the chance to define the terms of the debate. Well, if anyone can look me in the face and say, you know, a pound spent on youth services, on youth clubs doesn’t save you money in the long term. And I’d say that they think that’s true. I would like to see someone say that with a straight face. We know a pound spent on on youth services is worth its buck. We know. And the evidence is there. And as as I said, you know, we need to think very differently about what government spending really means. It’s an investment. It’s an investment in people. It’s an investment in communities. We need to reshape the terms of the debate. And for as long as we have the same people having the mic holding the terms of the debate, then it’s still going to be really hard to fight against it.


Joe Harris Yeah. I think, you know, if we can exhume David Cameron and stick him in as his Lord says. Foreign secretary. Yeah, I want Zoe as a secretary of state and local government, I think I think we need to make that happen. But I think, you know, if you can’t.


Nish Kumar How boiled’s your piss, Joe?


Joe Harris You know, it’s boiling. Yeah. I like to think that, I think for me, the whole thing of austerity was we’re all in this together. And I think the deal kind of was that it’s going to be a tough few years. We’re going to have to make efficiency savings, but things will get better because we’ll be in a better financial, position. But everything so nothing’s really got better hasn’t mean it’s got a little bit worse. Whether that’s Brexit, the pandemic or Liz Truss, things haven’t got better. So I think for a lot of people, and it probably explains a lot of the political, you know, division. At the minute things have just the people have just seeing things get worse and worse and worse and their on it doesn’t really seem to be any answers. And I think the challenge for the next government is actually providing a vision of hope, which I just don’t think we’re getting from anybody really at the minute. So yeah, it’s it’s pretty impressing. I think the idea that any government’s going to come in and sort all these issues overnight is fanciful, to be honest. Yeah, that boils my piss.


Nish Kumar Thank you both so much for joining us. That was such a great conversation. And thank you also both for fine crafting a serious answer to the question, how Boyle did you.


Coco Khan It’s I can I should make that a Labour slogan. What is your piss? Probably not much with the cost of heat.


Zoe Billingham It’s, you know, maybe.


Joe Harris I’ll suggest it to the Lib Dem committee. Sorry about that.


Coco Khan Oh, thank you Zoe. Thank you Joe, we appreciate everything you’re doing.




Coco Khan So it’s time to name our UK hero and villain of the week. Who’s made you cross this week? Nish?


Nish Kumar My villains this week. Coco. The culture Secretary, Lucy Fraser, and the Transport Minister, Hugh Merriman, who this week perfectly illustrated the Conservative Party’s continued depressing and spectacularly ill informed war on the BBC. So, first of all, Lucy Fraser was on Kay Burley Sky news show and was being asked about her comments that she had evidence of BBC bias. Now, before we play the clip of the show, it’s worth remembering as you listen to this, that Lucy Fraser is a lawyer. A Casey, a senior lawyer. Now, factor that in to your understanding of what she says constitutes evidence. Let’s listen to the clip.


Clip The evidence of bias is what audiences believe is the content of the BBC. On causation, that’s not evidence. That’s perception. That is evidence. That is evidence. That is evidence. Impartiality is about perception of of the things that are being broadcast by the BBC. And the evidence in relation to that perception is that, perception and evidence is a different things. The evidence from Ofcom, having done studies and questionnaires of the public, is that the BBC’s ratings in relation to impartiality have gone down and I and the BBC think that there is more that the BBC can do in order to improve that.


Nish Kumar Was she recently kicked in the head by fucking horse. That perception is not evidence. She’s a lawyer. Unfathomable. This idea that polling data and perceptions can constitute evidence of BBC bias doesn’t make any sense. But then, having already seen that happen, Hugh Merriman, instead of deciding that that was one of the most embarrassing pieces of human shit that anyone has spoken, decided that he’d seen it as some sort of a gantlet that was being laid down, that he then rose to again on Kay Burley Show, who’s having a good week for not just punching fools in the mouth. He then went on to talk about Radio Four’s Let’s Remind Ourselves comedy program The News Quiz. This is Hugh Merriman talking about it.


Clip I was listening to the News Quiz, which is on radio four 630 on Friday, I was driving from my constituency office to the home for ten minutes. All I heard, and it wasn’t satirical, it was just diatribe against conservatives, not the government. And I did listen to that and think, for goodness sake, where is the balance in that? So yes, I’m afraid to say, despite the fact that I’ve always been a big supporter of the BBC. That struck me as completely biased. Okay, you understand that a news quiz is comedy and nothing to do with actual news. There was nothing in that ten minutes that was rubbish. You do understand that? It’s not that. I would be the first one. I love it when politicians get lampooned. But that was the whole point. There wasn’t actually anything in it in that particular regard, which struck me as being so amusing.


Nish Kumar I love it when politicians get lampooned. Nothing says I have a sense of humor about myself more than using the word lampooned. A BBC spokesperson said we’re confident our audiences know the difference between a longstanding and popular satirical comedy show and our news reporting. Madman also attacked the BBC’s coverage of Universal Credit and singling out a naming. A journalist, he said, always gave one side of the story and not the other side. Unfortunately, he confused the BBC journalist with Neil Buchanan, the host of the children’s television show from the 1990s, Art attack. So already, let’s just get this out there. Hugh Merriman is a fucking imbecile who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And it’s it should be real evidence of how the Conservative Party has descended into people like Lucy Fraser, who, based on their qualifications, should know better but are defending these nonsensical and ultimately indefensible positions. And people like Hugh Merriman, who are just shit that’s floated to the top of the tank because there’s no water left in it right now. I do just want to briefly talk about BBC comedy, because this is obviously something that personally affects me, not least because the program in question, The News Quiz, is hosted by my very good friend and his old man, who was also a brilliant guest on the show. Brilliant guest on our interview wrap up special to Pod Save the UK. Check it out. It’s still on the pod feed. Of course. When I worked for the BBC, me and the program caused a huge amount of stink about bias in BBC comedy, and the comedy was a sort of war on the government. What I will say is this having worked in the BBC comedy department, a huge amount of effort is made to ensure that there is some representation of jokes about all sides of the political spectrum. What I would also say is, if you don’t want to be made fun of, get the fuck out of government because the satirical news show is always going to focus most of its attention on the government of the day, because that’s where all of the news stories come from. That’s where the power in the country resides. I think I speak for a lot of people in this country when I say, maybe just stop being in government. But conservatives, if you’re that upset about people making jokes about you, look at the last two years of conservative government, we have had three different prime ministers, one of whom had to be removed from office because he was having too many birthday parties during the Covid lockdown. The second one was in office for less time than the lifespan of a lettuce, and the third one is now in office because no one else wanted to do the job. Tell me that Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are not absolutely hilarious. They’ve just brought David Cameron back like a soap that’s running out of ideas. I’m sorry. If you want people to make less fun of you, stop doing things that are obviously hilarious.


Coco Khan I did enjoy listening to Hugh Merriman essentially say he listened to ten minutes of it and he didn’t find it funny. And I can assure you that if you listen to the last ten minutes of this, he would not find it funny. And I think maybe you should send me on a tour and you may send him some tickets, a little DVD. Dear Hugh, interested in your thoughts? Love Nish.


Nish Kumar The the, the last time I did some jokes about, the government of the U.S.. Let’s just put it this way. How did it go? I no longer host a comedy show on the BBC about the news.


Coco Khan Oh, no.


Nish Kumar Let’s lower my blood pressure. And, the volume chart on the listeners podcast app, by having Coco, talk to us about, the PSUK hero of the week.


Coco Khan So my hero of the week is a judge called Anne Fairpo. So she was sitting as the judge in a tax tribunal where walkers crisps were trying to have their sensations poppadom rage classed as a food rather than a snack. That was so they could potentially save millions of pounds in tax. You know how I feel about taxes Nish and paying them. So Anne Fairpo made herself a hero to everyone by ruling that they were not actually poppadoms, but they were in fact crisps. And I’m sure we can agree as Asians we needed that.


Nish Kumar What she’s legally saying is those are not poppadoms.


Coco Khan Those are not poppadom.


Nish Kumar Your stupid crisps are not poppadoms.


Coco Khan How dare you say that this potato based snack is a poppadom which we all know is made from ground flour. Anyway, so she ruled that snacks are similar to potato crisp and so are not eligible for zero rated VAT. As a result, walkers will have to continue to pay the standard 20% fat on them. Walkers also argue they were not a crisp as they were named poppadom’s. But we called them poppadoms, they said. And in response Judge Anne Fairpo said nominative determinism is not a characteristic of snack foods. Calling a snack hula-hoops does not mean that one could twirl that product around one’s midriff. Nor is Monster Munch generally reserved as a food for monsters. I love it when the judges do it.


Nish Kumar Love a judge with a sense of humor.


Coco Khan Oneself.


Nish Kumar A few. But yeah, that’s that’s the judges made a ruling with a sense of humor. It’s one of the eye for cultural appropriation and tax avoidance. It’s all round a good story, and it sits so squarely in the interest of the podcast that, as we said before, we and only we refer to as the newsagents.


Coco Khan So Anne Fairpo, you are a legend and our UK hero of the week.


Nish Kumar If you’ve got something you’d like to share with us, comments on what you’ve heard, or if you have a question about British politics, you can get in touch with us by emailing PSUK@ ReducedListening.co.uk. It’s always nice to hear your voices, so do send us a voice note on WhatsApp. Our number is 07514 644572. Internationally, that’s +44 7514 644572. We have received an overwhelming number of responses to Pod Shag the UK, our fake dating service that we offhandedly suggested as a joke, but is, in the words of one of our producers, getting quite out of hand. I’m very sorry. I’ve been specifically told we can’t read out any more dating profiles.


Coco Khan And don’t forget to follow Pod Save the UK on Instagram and Twitter. You can also find us on YouTube for access to full episodes and other exclusive content. And if you’re as opinionated as we are, please do consider leaving us a review. I mean, we couldn’t stop people using the review section as a dating profile.


Nish Kumar If you want to use the review section of the podcast as a place to deposit your dating profiles, we are unable to stop that from happening.


Coco Khan No, and we couldn’t stop people using YouTube comments as a way to put their.


Nish Kumar I don’t think anyone should use YouTube comments as a way to find a partner.


Coco Khan No, I think.


Nish Kumar Unless the partner you’re looking for is a Nazi.


Coco Khan Pod Save the UK is a Reduced Listening production for Crooked Media.


Nish Kumar Thanks to senior producer Musty Aziz and digital producer Alex Bishop.


Coco Khan Video editing was by David Kaplovitz and the music is by Vasillis Fotopoulos.


Nish Kumar Thanks to our engineer David Dugahee.


Coco Khan Executive producers are Anushka Sharma, Dan Jackson and Madeleine Herringer with additional support from Ari Schwartz.


Nish Kumar Remember to hit subscribe for new shows on Thursdays on Amazon, Spotify or Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.