Wednesday, 19 January 2011

It isn’t fair and it will be painful

In advance of discussion on the Conservative-led government’s Localism Bill, I initiated a parliamentary debate about the government’s local government finance strategy.

I noted that local government services are some of the most immediate and important to people locally. They include education for our children and grand-children, social services providing residential and home care and aids and adaptations for elderly parents and grand-parents. There are services which about the quality of life of local families and communities: things such as parks, libraries and sports centres. Some services are essential to support our daily lives - refuse collection, street cleaning, highway maintenance, street lights. Some are essential when things go wrong – police and fire services.

There is a separate debate to be had about the scale, nature and timing of any required reduction in public spending. But the three questions I wanted answers to in this debate were
Why is the government forcing
  • bigger cuts in local government spending than it is making in the rest of government expenditure?
  • front-loaded cuts for local government – 28% in the next two years?
  • cuts that are four times as big in the most deprived communities as in the least deprived communities?

Let me be clear. There is nothing socialist about being inefficient, ineffective and unresponsive. In every area of life – public and private – we should be continually looking at ways of getting better value. Incidentally, the independent auditors have been clear that local government has consistently delivered the highest year-on-year efficiency savings over the last decade.

But, government ministers keep stating that local councils do not need to make any cuts in frontline services as a result of the cuts in government expenditure. No-one believes this.

On the day after the Secretary of State asserted that no council needed to or should cut services to support elderly or disabled people, one of his favourite councils – Westminster – which is getting lower grant cuts than most, announced it would be cutting its budget for those services by £1m. Councils across the country have already proposed the closure of more than 400 libraries – and there will be many more to come.

Do government ministers believe that every council – of every political persuasion and none (there are some independent-controlled councils) – will be making cuts in frontline services simply out of malicious perversity?

Over the next few weeks, the scale of the cuts in local services throughout the country will become clear. They will shock and they will be painful.