Eric’s axe leaves local government with impossible decisions

I was born into local government and brought up to love it. Not its pomposity, ceremony or status but its capacity to change peoples lives.

It may seem strange even to those involved in providing local services that anyone could have a romantic attachment to this perplexing, eccentric sector but that’s the way it is.

In this column I want to explore my love affair with local government, but also to give an insight into what it is like to lead an urban authority with more than its fair share of challenges and opportunities. This will be a view from the trenches as we deal with the crisis facing local government, but I also hope to give a more long-term perspective as we attempt to redefine our mission.

My father was a councillor in Birmingham in the 1960s, representing St Paul’s, the same ward that Joseph Chamberlain served. He instilled a belief in ‘municipal activism’ a philosophy that Eric Pickles sneeringly calls ‘municipal socialism’.

Tristram Hunt in Building Jerusalem describes a municipal world in which Tory and Liberal politicians ‘spoke of sweeping away streets in which it was not possible to live a healthy and decent life; of making the town cleaner, sweeter and brighter; of providing gardens and parks and music; of erecting baths and free libraries an art gallery and a museum’.

I am immensely proud of my father and his generation who inherited this world shattered though it was by World War Two they still managed to take this country forward. This is a world that Eric wants to eradicate.

What sticks in the craw of most self-respecting council leaders of whatever political party they represent is the thought that Eric wandered along to the Treasury department with one thing in mind, to volunteer local government for the most stringent of cuts possible. We were sacrificed in an attempt to improve his political standing.

Do you remember the original statement by the chancellor that we were going to be asked to make cuts of 7% a year? It soon became clear that Eric had volunteered local government for something far more draconian. In Salford’s case it has become something close to 14% but there are others for whom it is over 20% in the first year.

There are two reasons for this; firstly by slashing the area based grant this funding was not taken into account by the figures reported and secondly Eric had volunteered to front load his cuts thus causing maximum chaos. Even Eric suddenly realised that he had gone too far and went back to the Treasury with predictable results. He was then forced to scramble around his own department and came up with some limited cash, but still leaving us with a cut of 11 or 12% to be found.

Technical issues bedevil local government finance but the fundamental issue still should be one of fairness. Grants from central government were introduced to deal with the fact that councils such as Salford could not raise from rates the amount per head that, for example, Surrey could.

Therefore if you cut the grant while giving councils the product of a 2.5% increase in their council tax you hit the poor and reward the rich. That is why I am sitting in my office agonising over which part of Chamberlain’s legacy to sacrifice – close a library or stop cleaning the streets?

Eric, if you listen carefully I am sure you can hear the sound of Chamberlain spinning in his grave.


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