The FUD is in full flood today with the BBC faithfully reproducing, without any effort to question or challenge the assertions, claims that a number of local authorities are at risk of collapse as a result of cuts in central government funding.
Clearly bored (for the time being) of demonising companies who quite properly seek to minimise the tax they pay, Margaret Hodge has moved the Labour Party agenda on to eeevil reduction of central funding to local councils.
Never mind that councils now derive more income from the charges and fees they impose on residents than they collect in Council Tax. Never mind that the budgets of local authorities are loaded with spending commitments on non-essential activities that have never been to voters for approval. Never mind that the funds from central government that local authorities are being to work with are no lower than they were only several years ago. Never mind that just before the end of each financial year departments are falling over themselves to spend money left in the budgets so they can claim the same amount or more in the next budget round. No, the councils are apparently on the edge of catastrophe.
This is all about power. Whoever controls the money wields the power. The problem is, as I saw all too clearly when a councillor in a mid-sized authority, not only do voters have no say in how the money is spent, elected councillors often have little idea exactly how much and where money is being spent.
The proliferation of ‘cabinet’ run councils and devolved powers to council officers mean the elected members have little to no control over where the money goes. To molify them, councils now give members a sum of money each year to spend within their ward on a local initiative – subject to approval. In my local authority the Labour councillors in one ward pooled their money to fund a one-day festival for ethnic minorities. Me and my fellow ward councillors pooled our money and used it to fund SmartWater being put on residents’ personal property in a burglary hotspot.
Thousands of pounds were spent across the borough each year, but not a penny could be spent on the essential services an authority should be providing. Regardless of the utility or otherwise of the councillors’ decisions, the fact remains councils and councillors were focussed on discretionary spending. By way of another anecdotal example, a nearby authority broke its own funding criteria to divert hundreds of thousands of pounds to a maintain a theatre that was failing because it didn’t offer anything that enthused residents to want to use it. At the same time funding for a local care home was reduced. Another example saw the council stump up thousands of pounds for PCSOs to walk the streets, even though residents had already paid the policing precept to fund officers, meaning residents were paying twice of ‘police presence’ on the streets. Yet another saw demands to fund NHS staff to help reduce teen pregnancies, even though the primary care trust had decided it wasn’t a sufficient priority for money from its own budget. And everywhere, the sustainability agenda never goes without cash, as councils – regardless of what councillors or party groups say or want – follow the directives, regulations and whims of supranational entities.
These are not the actions of ‘Baron Hardup’ stuck in a dusty Chief Executive office, getting by on a frugal stipend. Rather these are the actions of people who fancy themselves as businessmen, only without competition or risk, where they cut a dash on six figure salaries and half a million pound pension pots as they devise new ways to extract ever larger sums from residents under pain of prosecution.
The fact is councils have expanded their reach into far too many activities where government has no business, let alone being core to their remit of providing essential services. Try to get a line item breakdown of all the spending and grants made by your authority and you will be made to jump through hoops before being told some of the information is confidential, with items hidden on ‘pink papers’ that are barred from public release, so you can’t even see how your money is spent in your name.
Scare stories from the Public Accounts Committee and the Local Government Association aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. Local democracy is anything but, accountability is non existant, and to maintain their perceived control the councils are misleading people into thinking working this coming year with budgets that were perfectly fine five or so years ago is completely impossible and requires a raft of essential services that have been provided for decades to be cut.
These ‘cry wolf’ warnings are not financial, they are politically motivated and they have nothing to do with serving the interests of the residents. It’s time residents woke up and started to challenge the deceptions of these thieves in suits.