The announcement from the coalition yesterday regarding the annual financial settlement for Local Government is the last that they will make. It also has the potential to be changed in the middle of the year, once the new Government has been elected in May and ‘seen the books’ barely a month into the year in question, although such a move seems unlikely. However many Councils let alone residents across the country would welcome a change if it is change for the better. There seems to be a challenge for both Central and Local Government in agreeing how much of a cut this budget represents for our public services. The Local Government Association is suggesting that the budget represents a 9% cut, Government Ministers are suggesting a mere 2%. The fact that the two ‘sides’ cannot agree and both are prepared to publicise this lack of agreement rather than try to establish some common ground should be something we all find concerning. If we are going to ensure that our communities are reassured that the things they come to rely on will be in place in April 2015 then some sense of agreement would be helpful to say the least. The difference between 2% and 9% is fairly substantial!
For many of us outside of the world of civil servants, the idea of announcing a budget barely three months before the year begins seems inconceivable and ridiculous. After all the actual local budgets will now need to be set, leading to local announcements in late February or even mid March. These budgets will determine if certain employees will be made redundant and the extent of services being provided by businesses and charities. These organisations in turn may be told of cuts to their budgets within days of their new contracts beginning. Anyone with experience of running a business or a charity will know that this is one of the reasons why delivering public services can be a very difficult. Most good businesses and charities want to maintain a good and long term relationship with their staff and volunteers. Such relationships are hard to maintain if the people concerned are unsure of their own future.
Unfortunately far too few Politicians in local Government have any real experience of the contemporary challenges facing charities and businesses that deliver public services. In part this is because there would potentially be a conflict of interest. However the fact is that they have little chance of changing a system that creates so many problems for them and the organisations that deliver ‘their’ services. For different reasons there are very few Politicians with any real experience of both Central Government and Local Councils. Ironically one of these is Eric Pickles, yet he is viewed by many people in local Government as a block when it comes to getting their views and concerns into the Cabinet. Perhaps he is so confident of his 11 years as a Councillor, that he feels he does not need to listen to colleagues having to deal with his Government. However it is clear that all forms of Government have changed a great deal in the last 25 years since Cllr Pickles was leader in Bradford and he and his colleagues who could improve matters for Councils around the country seem unaware of the problems they are creating or they are simply unwilling to do anything about them.
When we get frustrated with the way in which our local Council and its agents deliver services in our communities, we might consider if a big part of the problem is caused by others who claim to be accountable to you and I. Perhaps it is time we ask these people to justify their actions too, and while they are at it perhaps we could have a straight answer, which is right a 2% reduction or a 9% reduction? After all if they can’t agree on this, what prospect is there of them doing something complicated such as educating our children and many other tasks that demand cooperation between Whitehall and the Town Hall?