Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and prime minister Theresa May clashed at PMQs over a series of leaked text messages between the leader of Surrey County Council, David Hodge, and a CLG special adviser.
Surrey Council had been planning a referendum on whether to raise council tax by 15% to cover the spiralling costs of social care – which it must do by law on a tax rise above the level agreed by the communities secretary.
That vote was a public challenge to the funding settlement set by Whitehall.
The move was halted – and a crunch council meeting delayed by three hours – while Hodge spoke with government officials including Nick King, the special adviser to Sajid Javid.
Instead, Surrey opted for a 4.99% increase in council tax, negating the need for a vote.
The text messages, which were sent to a councillor instead, hinted at extra funding being made available to Surrey.
The row between councils and central government has been on-going since Budget cuts began under the Cameron coalition government. The local government finance settlement was agreed in December with social care funding increased at the expense of cash for new homes.
Hodge had previously warned that bed-blocking was now an issue in Surrey’s hospitals because the money isn’t available to support care in people’s homes.
Nationally, council social care funding cuts over this Parliament will have totalled £2.6bn by 2020.
In Surrey social care funding has been cut by £170m since 2010.
Public sector finance experts said the row showed just how serious the funding crisis for social care provision had become.
A CIPFA spokesman told 24housing: “The fact that Surrey were considering this [the referendum] is indicative of the situation they are in at the moment. The fact that the idea was mooted is reflective of wider problems.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn asked the PM: “How much did the government offer Surrey to kill this off and is the same sweetheart deal on offer to every council facing the social care crisis created by [May’s] government?”
The prime minister responded: “What the Labour party fails to understand is that this is not just a question of looking at money, it is a question of looking at spreading best practice and finding a sustainable solution.”
In his statement, Hodge said: “Surrey’s decision not to proceed with a 15% council tax increase was ours alone and there has been no deal between Surrey County Council and the Government. However, I am confident that the government now understands the real pressures in adult social care and the need for a lasting solution.”
The row came on the same day as council social services directors warned spending cuts were now hitting staffing levels for adult social care workers.
Margaret Willcox, president-elect of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS), said: “Councils are projecting a combined overspend on adult social care for 2016/17 of around £441m, which follows a cumulative total of £5.5bn being cut from their social care budgets since 2010.
“This significant fall in staff numbers is unsurprising and is due to the social care funding crisis which is failing to tackle the growing demand within local communities for care of people living longer and with increasingly complex needs.”