Of course, The Beatles famously knew how many holes it took to fill the Albert Hall. Here in modern-day Liverpool, we know how many potholes we need to fill – £400m worth of them.
The problem is we only have a budget of £4m to do it with and our recent government grant has given us a paltry £400,000 increase.
We only had one per cent of the money we need to do the job to begin with – and now we’re being given a paltry 0.1 per cent extra. It’s a familiar tale across the country, with most councils struggling to maintain basic infrastructure at the same time as averting a funding crisis with their social services.
We’ve had two-thirds of our government funding cut since 2010 – £444m – which means we have the impossible task of juggling immediate public service pressures with long-term capital investment, while, at the same time, trying to develop new sources of revenue.
It’s clear the chill winds of austerity will continue to blow. That was the message from the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, in his spring statement. There is no reprieve for local authorities, despite Tory-controlled Northamptonshire County Council actually going bust. That’s before we get onto the yawning national financial crisis in adult social care and the £2bn deficit that has opened up in children’s services.
It’s abundantly clear that with Brexit dominating the domestic political agenda, the needs of desperate councils – especially larger urban authorities – are way down the ministerial pecking order. We cannot sit on our hands waiting to be rescued by a friendlier climate in Westminster. We must learn to help ourselves – so that’s what we’re doing.
Using our capital borrowing powers, we are planning to help Everton football club build a new fit-for-purpose stadium, which will form the centrepiece of a much larger regeneration of 125-acres of our dilapidated north docks area, which have lain dormant since the 1980s. The revenue we receive from doing so – around £7m a year for 25 years – will be put straight back into frontline services.
We have also launched a new municipal housing company, Foundations, in order to rebalance the housing market in Liverpool. More than two-thirds of the properties in the city are in Band A. This means that for every one per cent of council tax, we raise just £1.6 million. We need a better housing mix across the city to improve the sustainability of our core finances.
Again, Whitehall is as much use as a chocolate fireguard. That’s why we will use £50m of capital borrowing to buy, renovate and build homes, addressing affordability and improving the mix of housing across the city.
Our bigger ambition is to scale-up this investment ten-fold over the next few years. We are also developing innovative ways of helping families accrue the deposit needed to buy their first home.
Social justice and economic efficiency working hand in hand. Sensible socialism, I call it. Our plans – although ambitious – are also prudent, with auditors from the Local Government Association recently reporting that we have a prudent level of debt and strong internal procedures for managing our finances.
That brings me back to potholes. This week I’ve announced a £200m investment programme to deliver a massive step-change in the quality of our roads network.
This work is urgent and the longer it’s left, the more we end up paying out in compensation claims to drivers. The programme will transform the quality of our roads, but it will also create hundreds of jobs and apprenticeships in the process.
Despite years of campaigning for more money and highlighting the problem here and elsewhere, this government fails to respond. Although the Treasury rakes in £28bn in fuel duty, ministers preside over the worst roads in our history. So we need to respond ourselves.
A mixture of low-interest borrowing drawing on our successful Invest to Earn strategy of commercialising our assets in order to grow revenue streams, which now raises over £20m extra a year, is being used to pay for our roads programme.
We need to be ambitious in finding practical solutions to the problems that an austerity-led agenda has left us with – both out of choice and necessity – as we seek to protect the vulnerable and discharge our broader responsibilities.
Ministerial indifference has left us little option other than to be creative and bold.