Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The end of local government as we know it. And I don't feel fine.

"I'm the first to say we should have lower taxes and smaller government. And I'm the Chancellor who is cutting the size of Government faster than anyone in modern times. We're reducing the size of government, from almost 50% of our national income to 40%, in just five years"
Sir Albert Bore dominated the local and regional news headlines yesterday with a blunt and sobering message - thanks to decisions taken by the current national government and inaction by the previous council administration, the Labour council in Birmingham will be forced to cut back on services. Not slicing off bits and pieces here and there, but making fundamental decisions about which services we do - or do not - provide to our citizens. This is the reality of Osborne's ideological plans to cut the size of the state - it comes at a cost of services that we provide to you. 
Cllr Tim Cheetham (Lab, Barnsley MBC) wrote about this situation in an excellent article here, where he reminded us of the Barnet 'Graph of Doom' - a chastening piece of work which was done for that London borough, but seems to apply to virtually every council across the country. What it effectively means is that, given the path that this government has set, by around 2020/23, local government will be funded to cover the costs only of adult and child social care. Nothing else will be affordable. As Tim writes,
The plain fact is that we have no fewer roads to mend, no fewer bins to empty, no fewer vulnerable adults to care for and no fewer children to safeguard. We have no less responsibility for any of the things the public have come to rely on the council to provide. In most cases we have more of these things
This massive shift will also mean that local authorities will be providing services for a minority of their residents and their voters. While just under half of the country uses a library and over a quarter use leisure services,only just over 10% of us use adult or children's services. This can't help but marginalise further these service users and reduce the value that others attach to the provision of that service. The government is, intentionally, trying to make local government less relevant to those that we represent. 
It has become apparent that this government will be imposing further cuts on Birmingham - more even than were known about by the last admininstration and some that are still to be confirmed, but are at the whim of Eric Pickles, the secretary of state at the Department of Communities and Local Government. There may be a further £50m of cuts to come - we don't know. We won't even be clear on the final settlement for 2013/14 until December or January. 

Even the plan set out by the last administration, which assumed a 1.9% council tax rise in 2013, has been blown out of the water by their own Coalition government. Eric has effectively capped council tax rises at 1.66% next year, requiring a referendum for any increase greater than that. That move alone leaves a shortfall of £600,000 in next year's budget. The government are likely to fund an amount equivalent to 1% in council tax next year - as they did this year - but unlike 2011/12, the government 1% will be a one-off payment, with no lasting increase in the grant. 

Mike Whitby popped up on BBC Midlands Today to make his point that Albert was scaremongering and that this 'displays political cowardice and weak leadership.' Albert and the Cabinet, along with other Labour colleagues will be at the public consultations, unlike the previous administration, who shoved council officers out to defend their political decisions. 
Whatever people say about Sir Albert - and people say plenty of things - he knows how local government works more than perhaps anyone else I have ever met. He's been a councillor in Birmingham for 30 years, through the hard years when the chill winds of Thatcherism blew through council corridors. So, when he says that this is the worst he has ever known, you sit up and you listen. 
We have choices to make over the coming weeks and months and many of them will be unpleasant. I can promise you that Labour in Birmingham will work to protect the most vulnerable - we will throw our increasingly dented shield over them, as one of my colleagues put it. 

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