Most – if not all – local authorities are currently consulting with residents, with stakeholders and other interested parties about the future shape of their budgets for next year. We have just closed our ‘Budget Challenge’ consultation which has been hugely successful – engaging hundreds of local people as well as voluntary sector organisations and local businesses in debating and discussing the really difficult decisions we are having to take next year.
The key message we’re working hard to get across is that these cuts are not of our making. I didn’t get elected to reduce spending or stop front-line services. Few readers of this blog did either. I got elected to build up essential services for people who need them most. The fact is, these cuts are being imposed by central Government – and that’s a message I am relentlessly pushing.
Local government is probably the most efficient part of the public sector. Compared with Whitehall departments, the cuts we’ve had to make are on a different scale. We’ve stripped out inefficiency, we have virtually cut out waste altogether. Today’s Barking and Dagenham Council is a very tight ship, run by considerably fewer senior managers.
Previously, we’ve largely been able to protect the front-line from cuts – but no longer. Next year, we have to find £18 million worth of savings, on top of £28 million of cuts already delivered in 2011/12 and £19 million in 2012/13. These are eye-watering amounts for a council that is serving a relatively deprived borough – and they are causing real pain. That’s why it is so frustrating that while authorities like ours take the tough decisions locally, the Government can’t seem to get its sums right. By our calculations, Barking and Dagenham is losing out to the tune of £2.5 million per year because the Government hasn’t updated its figures properly on the rapid increases of 0-17 aged children coming to our borough. There has also been a 50% growth in the number of children aged 0-4 in just ten years.
Yes, we have been successful in winning additional funding for school places – and this is welcome – but amounts such as this could help us invest in the services we need to respond to the requirements of one of the fastest growing populations anywhere in the country. We think there’s an eight per cent difference in the figures CLG uses to calculate our grant position and the more definitive figures announced in last year’s Census. That may not sound a lot, but it is the difference between retaining key services and withdrawing them.
When added to the reduction of around £3.6 million per year due to the withdrawal of other grants, many inner city authorities are really hurting, whereas some of the leafier boroughs appear to be contending only with single digit cuts. Where is the fairness in that?
I wrote yesterday to Eric Pickles and asked to meet with him before the announcements on Revenue Support Grants are made on the 19th December. I really recommend other council leaders and cabinet members do the same. We have to make our case and make it often – yes, there was slack in council budgets – but the decisions we’ve taken locally are an example ministers haven’t followed to the same degree. When can we expect Whitehall Permanent Secretaries to share the running of departments – as we have done here in Barking and Dagenham, where we have a shared Chief Executive with Thurrock?
Local government has gritted its teeth and set the bench-mark for efficiency – and we have to make that clear to our residents and to Government. All we ask is fairness and equity. Right now, we simply aren’t getting either.
Cllr Rocky Gill is Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Finance at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham