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Ideas for a radical budget for our times

With living standards predicted to fall to their lowest levels since records began and social and economic crises mounting up, you would expect a budget commensurate with the challenges ahead.

But Philip Hammond’s announcement this week will do little to alleviate the pressures on households, on health and social care and on places, particularly those struggling to find an economic raison d’etre.

Some parts of the housing sector welcomed the chancellor’s efforts to tackle the housing crisis. The borrowing cap will be relaxed for councils in areas of high demand, a measure that chair of the Local Government Association Lord Porter said is ‘an important recognition of the role that councils must play to boost homes for families in need’.

But he added that the measure does not go far enough, and this feeling was echoed by many for whom this was a budget that did little more than tinker around the edges.

Government seems to have few answers

that meet the scale of the challenge’

Other housing measures included a new target to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid 2020s, with a mix of incentives to achieve this, including support for housebuilding on smaller sites, a review on landbanking , and a beefed-up and rebranded Homes and Communities agency, now called Homes England. A Homelessness Reduction Taskforce was announced, which aims to halve rough sleeping by 2022.

But topped with a cut in stamp duty which will likely benefit only the rich and take house prices out of the reach of many, these measures were far from a radical response.

Likewise, while a change to the conditions of universal credit, which will see people on benefits wait only five weeks rather than six, was welcomed, it will do little to stem the tide of pain that that policy is causing, with food bank use up by 30% in places that have seen universal credit roll out already.

Locality, an umbrella group of community anchor organisiations said in its response to this week’s budget that the government ‘seems to have few answers that meet the scale of the challenge, beyond investment in traditional infrastructure and tax giveaways that will disproportionately benefit those on higher incomes’.

As central government ties itself up in Brexit knots and gets further away from the reality of people’s lives, it is those on the frontline of communities – in local councils and social organisations – that are increasingly coming up with the solutions needed to deep-seated problems.

From neighbourhoods building their own affordable low carbon homes or renewing their areas through community businesses, to Preston, which is developing city-wide local wealth building, places are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the task of re-distributing power and wealth, and tackling gross and growing inequalities.

These – and many other solutions – will find their way into the UK’s long, deep history of social action, and will keep places – and people – afloat as economic conditions worsen.

They will happen with or without support from central government but, imagining that Hammond set out had this week set out a budget for places that would help them deal with today’s challenges, what would be in it?

It might, as Locality states, include a clear strategy and policies to support community organisations and small charities at the forefront of problems, from the squeeze on social care to increasing isolation. These organisations not only bridge the gap in social problems but also play a key economic role in places, helping households through difficult times, employing local people and helping money to circulate in a locality.

It might support local social innovation experiments, so that towns and cities can develop social and economic solutions that fit local need, such as Barking and Dagenham’s Participatory City programme. It might help local councils to develop their social and civic economies, with the kinds of incentives that currently support the mainstream – extractive – approach to local economies.

It might, as NEF suggests, create a People’s Land Bank to deal with the acute housing need that exists, lift the borrowing cap for all councils, and create a £10bn community housing fund.

It might, as CLES suggests, change the debate around public services so that they are seen as investments rather than expenditure to be cut, re-thinking the balance between progressive taxation and spending, and putting public services at the heart of an economically and socially just society, as is happening in places like Barcelona.

There is no shortage of radical ideas to help the UK face up to the severe economic and social challenges that exist. Many are already being put into practice at a local level, where councils and social organisations have no choice but to step in and support communities through more economic and social upheaval.

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