When Chancellor George Osborne delivered his budget to the House of Commons he openly stated that it was the beginning of an attempt to fundamentally rebalance the shape of the UK economy by reducing the role of the public sector in order to stimulate private endeavour. He then went on to outline a series of measures that the Institute for Fiscal Studies described as the most severe and sustained cuts to public services since the Second World War.
The headlines for local government are of course the 25% spending cuts over the next four years, the two year pay freeze for staff on more than £21,000 a year and the council tax freeze – not to mention the upcoming review of public sector pensions.
Speaking at one of APSE’s conferences in Wales two days later, I had to hand out the anti-depressants after outlining these measures.
In attempting to address the sins of the bankers, the coalition Government’s decision to pursue the rule of 80% spending cuts to 20% higher taxes has left many in local government feeling that we are not ‘all in this together’.
The level of cuts are going to bite deeply and unevenly. Even the Chancellor recognised in his budget that local economies with the highest dependency on the public sector will suffer most as a result of his measures. I suspect that this means severe consequences for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the North East, North West and parts of the Midlands. The protection of health service budgets, which received record levels of ring-fenced funding over the last decade, also adds to the disproportionate impact of the cuts on local government.
It is understandable that some local authorities might be panicked into quick action. But now more than ever is a time for cool heads and proper assessment of the alternatives rather than cutting services dramatically, pursuing untested measures in an attempt to appear innovative, or confusing cheapness with good value.
It makes more sense for councils to assess where service performance is at present, identify future needs and look at the prospects for achieving this through improving existing services in the first instance. While this may lead to more fundamental decisions on future provision in some cases, it at least leaves councils in control of their own destiny while working out calmly what steps to take next.
Local government has always been the glue that has held local communities together. Slash and burn policies today are likely to prove counterproductive in the long term by significantly eroding the very local economies that we are supposed to lead and support.