Wedenesday saw the announcement of the local government funding settlement for 2013-14. As expected, councils across England will be facing even more cuts in their already-stretched budgets, and wondering just how they continue to deliver services in the face of ever-widening budget gaps. (See here or here for examples of how a funding squeeze and rising costs are impacting councils)
Of course, local government should be glad that we have a Secretary of State who understands the issues affecting the sector and is prepared to fight its cause in Whitehall while puncturing some of the myths that are propagated about it. Unfortunately, we don’t have that Secretary of State, we have Eric Pickles instead.
So instead of assistance and help from the Secretary of State, there is instead a hectoring of local government and a stubborn refusal to engage with anything councils have actually done to address the financial crisis. This is exemplified in the list of fifty money-saving ideas (pdf file) the Department for Communities and Local Government have published. This was accompanied by Pickles stating that councils must ‘do every single one’ of these ideas. Yet again, Pickles proves that ‘localism’ is just a sham – even more so than under Labour, his DCLG expects councils to dance to Whitehall’s tune in exchange for funding.
The general consensus from people I know in local government to the list has been ‘but we’re doing all that already!’ The advice is basic and simplistic, the easy salami-slicing cuts like sharing back office functions, hot desking and renting out council property that councils have been doing for years already. It’s also coupled with various items of had-right Tory political dogma that seems to believe councils are wasting fortunes on bottled water, Common Purpose and trade unions. There’s no recognition within that document – or in any of Pickles’ public statements – of how local government functions in 2012, or of the massive financial pressures the sector is facing.
This isn’t a one-off, though. Since becoming Secretary of State, Pickles has shown an unwillingness to accept that local government has changed dramatically since his heyday in Bradford over twenty years ago. Pickles’ pronouncements on local government are those of an attention seeking backbencher or Daily Mail columnist, showing none of the understanding of the sector one would expect from a Secretary of State. What local government needs in times like these is a DCLG that works with it to help lessen the pressure. Pickles’ centralist and dictatorial version of ‘localism’ instead threatens to irreparably damage local government.
* Nick Barlow is a Liberal Democrat councillor for Castle Ward on Colchester Borough Council. He has been blogging at What You Can Get Away With for far too long.