Monday, 16 November 2015

The worst of times

As I look at the impact of present government policies and actions on everyday essential local services I cannot help but be reminded of Dicken's introduction to the Tale of Two Cities. It could be easily adapted to present times.

"It is the worst of times, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of incredulity, it is the season of darkness, it is the winter of despair, we have nothing before us, - in short, the present period is so far like the past, that some of its noisiest authorities insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative."

Not content with failing to reduce the national debt through his austerity measures over the past five years, the Chancellor is now boasting that his spending review and autumn statement will reduce the growing debt in the next five years and that already four Whitehall departments have signed up for 30% cuts over the next four years. "I can report to you that – with the support of my brilliant colleague Greg Hands, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury – we have reached provisional agreement on the spending plans of four government departments: the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and of course the Treasury. The resource spending – that is the day to day spending of those four departments – will be cut on average 8% a year for the next four years, that’s by 30% in total." Bravo Chancellor and have you thought through the consequences for people and places?

Greg Clark, the Secretary of State of Communities and Local Government, has the same myopia as his predecessor, Eric Pickles. He has aligned himself with the Chancellor, seemingly oblivious to becoming part of the curmudgeonly wing of ministers. Although he knows that local government cuts can be laid at the door of Councils; after all it is up to them to determine their priorities! Has he no idea what damage has already been wreaked on Councils? Even his department acknowledges that there will be an 35% decrease in overall funding for local government services by 2019/20, despite council tax, business rates and charges increasing slightly. This reduction excludes Education, Social Care and Waste, which obtain separate funding streams or are protected. The department accept that this magnitude of savings cannot be achieved by efficiencies and will require severe reductions in statutory services as well as the wipe out of many discretionary services such as libraries and leisure. These will impinge significantly on the quality of life, particularly of children and the dependent elderly.

The Tories may believe that Education is being transferred to Academies or Free Schools and that Community Care is an NHS function but this fails to recognise that local government has still the major responsibility for these vital services. They are protected to some extent but only at the expense of non statutory services like sport,leisure, libraries, museums, play, youth work and many other services that enhance the quality of life. Meanwhile roads and transport, business support, community facilities and urban regeneration are starved of investment. Our localities no longer have the resources or the capacity to provide the leadership that is essential for thriving sustainable communities.

Local Government has been treated with disdain by this and the previous coalition government. It is an easy target, unlike the NHS or Defence, where the backlash of any cuts is against the Government. Direct ministerial control means that these services are safeguarded from the swinging cuts that are applied to local government. The consequences of perpetual harsh settlements are beginning to be realised by the electorate as well as the angry phalanx of activists in the arts, sport, environment and voluntary sector who see their facilities, projects and services wither away There is a clamour for the return of council housing as private landlords milk their tenants; town centres are in meltdown; the loss of sport, arts and other community facilities and services are being challenged.

Public services are not an optional extra but an essential part of the framework for living, working and playing. They certainly need to modernise and adapt but they cannot be junked in the way that the chancellor and his cohorts seem to believe. They are the 'powerhouse for improvement' as he seems to acknowledge to some extent in his Northern Powerhouse initiative. Although it would seem that this is a way of ditching some central government services onto local government without any extra resources for day to day spending. It just shifts the opprobrium for central government imposed cuts to local councils.

Osbourne and Greg Hands have shown that they neither understand nor care what havoc will be wreaked by this squeezing of public services. It is of secondary importance, what matters is the reduction of the bottom line - this is how your political virility is measured. The PM has also shown how out of touch he is with local public services this week in an exchange of letters with the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire County Council, The PM wrote that he was "disappointed at the cuts in frontline services and urged the Council to make back office cuts and sell off surplus property". The leaders reply showed no remorse "That's already been done over the past 5 years, along with a 40% reduction in the most senior staff.  That is why the Council have had to heavily prune libraries, museums, play areas, parks along with children's centers and services for the elderly."

Oxfordshire County Council like many other Conservative Councils in England has local leaders who understand the suffering caused by the reality of five years of imposed austerity. They have had a devastating effect on local services and incurred a massive shedding of jobs.  It is relatively painless for Whitehall to agree cuts of this magnitude particularly if like Greg Hands you represent Westminster, the most wealthy Council in the country. Even the protection of the more affluent and growing shire counties in the south east has not inured them against the damage.

If the PM is concerned about services in his cherished constituency what must it be like in the far forgotten north and the cities, which have not been blessed by the manipulation of grants offered to the Tory homelands. I know from working in Oxfordshire, admittedly a long time ago, that Tory leaders are pragmatic and realistic about protecting their domains. But why are they not getting the message through to ministers? Do they need to shout louder or is the government not interested in hearing these messages. Unlike the Armed Forces, the Police, the Universities and the NHS, local government does not have a hierarchical structure with its leading figures part of the London establishment. Its leaders are based in their localities and too busy to lobby, exploit the media or behave like charlatans to protect their interests.

In the past year I have mentored twenty or so top managers in local government. Their agenda is one of perpetual cuts, removing many so called non essential services and reducing essential services. They are punch drunk, they have lost many experienced colleagues and people who held the institutional memory that safeguards against mistakes. They no longer have time to think creatively nor do they have the resources to take forward new services or improvements that communities are demanding.

There is no doubt that the Chancellor has deliberately set out to roll back the role of the state. The consequent outcome is that private care homes, private rented housing, free schools, commercial sport and leisure facilities do not plug the gaps of services previously provided on a universal or priority basis by councils. Moreover the private provision woefully fails the most vulnerable families and dependent adults. Similarly the multitude of voluntary organisations are not the panacea that the PM would have us believe as he found out with considerable embarrassment with the collapse of the Kid's Company recently. Voluntary organisations depend upon the goodwill and tithes from the public and this is not the most productive or efficient way to render services.

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