Friday, December 17, 2010

Mything the point

Sharper than the ice-cold wind, the council cuts landed on chief executive desks this week, amidst a predictable blast of spin from Chairman Eric, trying to encourage his minions to welcome his benevolence. Notably, of course, the figures were framed in a new term - Total Spending Power - invented to conceal a sleight of hand that obscures the depth of the cuts, keeping them in single figures, suggesting that the pain need not be as bad as originally predicted. As we know from the ever diligent Allister Hayman at the Local Government Chronicle, a few weeks back, Eric suddenly realised that the proposed formula cuts were so serious that they would be intolerable even to someone with his taste for blood, but as he had agreed his settlement with the Treasury some weeks previously - securing his place on the Star Chamber - he was in a bind. A mission with the begging bowl to the Treasury proved fruitless, so Eric delved down the back of the DCLG sofas and turned out a further £85 million, which miraculously became a Transition Fund to ease some of the pain for the worst affected councils. However, this is exactly what it says - a temporary sticking plaster that may staunch a little bit of bleeding until the protection is removed.

The figures have been crunched by the LGC and the results are interesting. For example, Birmingham appears to face cuts of 8.32% in direct government funding for the fiscal year 2011-12 and a further cut of 4.28% the following year and these are the headline figures - repeated in the Birmingham Post yesterday. However, they conceal the truth behind this Total Spending Power line. This includes formula grant and council tax - not unreasonably - but also a new NHS grant, which is ringfenced for projects on social care with the primary care trusts. This cannot reasonably be counted as adding to council spend, as it will essentially be dedicated to new areas of co-operation. If that is discounted from Birmingham's spending, then the first year cut is 12.95%, followed by a second year cut of 6.06%. Remember that neither of these figures account for inflationary pressure, which will only heighten the effects of the cuts.

That's bad enough for Birmingham, but spare a thought for one of our neighbours, Wyre Forest, which will face some of the worst cuts in the country over two years - 15.6% for the coming year and a further 12.7%. The worst hit council in the country is Aylesbury Vale District Council, which loses a massive 17.3% of its money in 2011/12 and then 12.3% the year after - cuts so deep that they may threaten the viability of the authority without heavyweight axe swinging, which will doubtless cheer the local MP, John Bercow - Mr Speaker, no less.

It is also clear that, despite promises to the contrary, these cuts fall disproportionately on the most deprived and on the north. Barbara Keeley MP has written on Left Foot Forward about this attack on local authorities - ironically delivered by Pickles at the same time as the localism bill was supposed to empower communities. She notes that ministers have used new language to disparage councils for deprived areas

Councils serving the most deprived areas of the country were described as “dependent” and those serving affluent areas were “self-sufficient”. Councils were said to be dependent on “handouts” from central government. The Conservative/ Liberal Democrat government has presented councils in our most deprived areas with the deepest cuts ever to their budgets and then used language which stigmatises their situation.

And don't think that this is an area where the Liberal Democrats escape being smeared in blood - Clegg promised that the north would not be disproportionately affected and that pledge was honoured in the traditional way by being entirely ignored. Clegg also sat on the Cabinet committee that signed off on the final settlement. Paul Burstow was wheeled out to defend these cuts - yet another lightning rod, conducting the blame away from the Conservatives. Following the lead of his master, Burstow claimed that

there is no justification for local authorities to slash and burn or to tighten eligibility (for adult social care)
As Barbara Keeley points out

These exhortations do not work in practice. Conservative-run North Yorkshire County Council plans to close more than two-thirds of its residential care homes. Birmingham City Council, run by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, has announced proposals to restrict social care funding to those assessed as ‘critical’ – the highest possible level at which to set eligibility.

There is a simple and cynical intent behind this - to localise the blame away from the government. Pickles tells us - with no evidence - that only lazy councils will have to cut front line services and that the pay of chief executives will bear the brunt of the axe. If he genuinely believes this, then he needs to seek assistance for delusional behaviour, as nobody else finds this remotely credible. The reorganisation of back office functions to share them across authorities has been suggested by Pickles, but tectonic shifts like that are simply impossible in the timescale allowed - front line services will be hit because there is no other way to achieve these cuts.

The cuts planned over the next four years are being front loaded - quite intentionally for political reasons. The coalition knows that survival in 2015 depends on the public forgetting the worst of the public sector cuts and displaying gratitude for the tax cuts to come in the pre-election budget (for Osborne will have a war chest by that point, providing forecasts are realised), so their baser political needs subjugate the demands of the greater good.

These cuts are brutal, destructive and based upon lies - hardly an unusual foundation for government policy today. For a government that trumpeted a commitment to localism, they are an insult to best champions of genuine localism, the democratically-accountable local authorities.

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