Up and down the country, we are beginning to see the real implications of the massive cuts that the government has made in local government funding. This month’s announcements about the closures of libraries, swimming pools, SureStart centres are just the start. The biggest funding cuts are still to come and, over the summer, Eric Pickles quietly announced a further £1bn cut in council funding.
Service cuts and increased charges for services are taking place in councils of all political controls and none. To those who suggest that ‘there wouldn’t be these problems if politics was taken out of local government’, I simply note that the councils closest to financial meltdown are controlled by Independents.
However, the government has been determinedly political in making the funding cuts. Millions of pounds are being switched from north to south, from urban to rural, and from the poorest to the wealthiest areas. But even that isn’t stopping service cuts in southern Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils, which rather gives the lie to suggestions that the cuts arise from political incompetence or perversity.
This switch is also being forced through in other spending areas. Last year, the government tried to make the same sort of funding changes in the NHS. Leading doctors managed to block the proposals, saying that the proposed changes were completely unjustified on health grounds. That hasn’t stopped the government trying again this year. It intends to cut nearly £50m a year from the NHS in Sheffield and give it to Surrey – a proposal supported by Nick Clegg, somewhat undermining his thin claim to be standing up for the city.
However, I will support Nick Clegg’s proposal to provide free school meals to 5 and 6 year olds. What observers might find strange is that when councils like Hull and Southwark provided free school meals, local Liberal Democrats described it as “disgraceful profligacy” and, when they took control of those councils, stopped the provision altogether. Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes twittered that the policy was “wasting extraordinary amounts”. At least we know that ‘Say one thing, do another’ is safe in Mr Clegg’s hands.