Friday, November 26, 2010

Eric - Pickled again

Eric Pickles has revelled in his reputation as the axeman - he has gone out of his way to attract dislike from those in local government as it becomes increasingly apparent that the doctrine of localism will see attempts to devolve power below the level of local authorities, but ensure that a large chunk of the blame for local cuts sits with those same authorities. But, it seems he has engineered a problem that he is struggling to undo, which may explain his bad-tempered performance in front of an admittedly hostile crowd of Labour councillors who now dominate the London Councils group.

According to the Local Government Chronicle and referenced from outside their paywall by the Guardian, Pickles and the Department of Communities and Local Government have seriously erred. Pickles proudly offered his departmental sacrifice to the unholy duo of Osborne and Alexander and secured his place in the Star Chamber, but it has now transpired that the grants to local authorities that are about to be announced have been calculated to give thumping increases to some well-heeled local authorities, but strip massive amounts from those facing the greatest challenges of poverty and deprivation - up to 38% of their budgets, cuts that would render authorities potentially unable even to fulfill their statutory duties. Examples cited include Liverpool - the most deprived local authority in the country - which will face cuts of 25-29%, as will Wolverhampton, Hull, Blackburn and Blackpool, amongst others. Worst hit will be Hastings, Hyndburn, Barrow and Pendle, all of whom are in a group facing cuts up to 38%.

It is so bad that some of the northern metropolitan authorities have suggested that their councillors may not be able to set legal budgets in 2011 if the settlement is as forecast. What happens then is anyone's guess, as there is no process for resolving the situation if councillors vote an unbalanced budget and the finance director then refuses to sign it off - as they legally must.

With a stroke, Pickles has destroyed any claims to progressivism that this government might attempt to sustain in terms of council funding, but that is not the only political train bearing down upon him. If he attempts to rebalance funding, he can expect a storm to appear from the direction of those councils at the other end of the deprivation spectrum, who are expecting equally big rises in grant - up to 38%. And these are nice, leafy Tory councils, including West Oxfordshire, within the ten LEAST deprived areas in the entire country, but packed full of vocal Tory supporters who might complain to their neighbouring MP, one D Cameron.

Realising that this settlement was unworkable, Pickles went back to Danny Alexander and asked for a bit more cash and was apparently refused, leaving the DCLG staff running around trying to rebalance the books and make sensible settlements that will allow councils to function. With the cuts being frontloaded over the next two years - part of the gameplan to try to consign the cuts to history by the time the next election rolls round in 2015 - there are suggestions from Simon Hughes no less that the bill for cutting jobs could exceed £3 billion and from the LGA that job cuts could be as high as 40%, to allow for completion within the time frame demanded by government.

What is certainly true is that if this is implemented, these are going to be punishing cuts to local authorities. This is really going to hurt the poorest, giving the lie to any claims that we are all in this together. We are all equal, some just less equal than others.

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