Dr Cameron’s advice to councils: apply more leeches

The Oxford Mail has published an exchange of letters between David Cameron and the Conservative leader of his local council, Ian Hudspeth, in which the prime minister expresses his concern about cuts to local services. In reply, the council leader politely explains that he is simply implementing the prime minister’s policies and that the amount he needs to save means that frontline services will inevitably be hit.

David Cameron tells the council chief that he is “disappointed” by the scale of the proposed cuts and asks him why he can’t make savings to back office services instead.

There is sense of deja vu about all this. David Cameron was banging on about back office savings five years ago. The problem is, councils have already made most of the back office savings they can safely get away with. As the council leader explains, Oxfordshire has done all the things the government recommended. It has set up back office service centres, cut its top two tiers of management by 40 percent, shared services with Hampshire and frozen pay. There isn’t much more left to squeeze out.

It is, as George Monbiot says, as though he’s talking to a slow learner. The prime minister is still talking about things were being discussed years ago. It’s like the kid who hasn’t been paying attention asking a daft question in class. No, Dave, we did King Alfred last term. We’re on the Normans now.

As the IFS reported just before the election, local authority budgets were cut by around a fifth during the last parliament, more if you exclude health, education and emergency services.

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Councils coped with this by digging into reserves and by making some of the biggest cuts in percentage terms to services that are not very visible, such as planning and regulatory activities.

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Cuts to planning and building control will go largely unnoticed until, at some point, someone asks why so many sub-standard houses were built, so many flood plains developed or so many nightclubs and betting shops opened in a given area. The reduction in safety and environmental health inspections will only come to light when people get injured or there is an outbreak of food poisoning.

The National Audit Office calculated the real-terms reduction in local government income to be 25 percent between 2010-11 and 2015-16. It broke down the impact on services in a slightly different way.

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The only service to get an increase in spending was children’s social care which is, of course, one of the most visible and high-risk of all council services. Mess that up and you are in serious trouble.

None of this is going to get any easier. Earlier this week the Resolution Foundation published a report on the future shape of the state. Rising debt payments and a social security bill kept high by pensioner benefits means that the only way to eliminate the deficit is to cut public service spending.

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As the overall public service pot gets smaller, protected services take up an ever greater proportion of spending which squeezes everything else. Local government funding is part of that shrinking pink bit at the end.

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This time last year the National Audit Office raised doubts about the financial sustainability of more than half of the country’s local authorities during the 2015-20 parliament.

Analysis of the auditors’ statements indicates they have growing concerns about the capacity of certain authorities to continue to identify savings given the scale of reductions they have already made. They have also raised concerns about the capacity of some authorities to make the savings they have already identified.

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It also remarked that the Department for Communities and Local Government was not monitoring the impact of the cuts, that “its knowledge of service sustainability is limited” and that it “risks becoming aware of serious problems with the financial sustainability of local authorities only after they have occurred”. In other words, it really has no idea what effect the spending cuts have had so far.

Neither, it seems, does the prime minister. If you fail to understand what local councils have done over the past half decade, you can have no idea whether or not they will be able to cope during the next one. As Giles says, if you take a pint of blood from someone once they will probably be fine. Take another one a couple of days later and they might feel a bit sick. Take a third pint a few days later and they will probably fall over. It’s much the same with organisations. There is only so much you can take. A lot of local authorities are getting close to the falling over stage. Homilies from a prime minister, five years out-of-date, are not really going to help.


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18 Responses to Dr Cameron’s advice to councils: apply more leeches

  1. ThinkPurpose says:

    Reblogged this on thinkpurpose and commented:
    A brilliantly concise and accurate takedown of why David Cameron is Thicky Thick McThick, winner of “Thickest man in Thicktown” when it comes to understanding what’s happening as a result of his own policies. Is this man a Thicky or what?

  2. Pingback: Dr Cameron’s advice to councils: apply more leeches | Flip Chart Fairy Tales | sdbast

  3. Pingback: Cartoon: Mr Osborne’s medicine for the UK public services and local authorities © Matt Buck Hack Cartoons

  4. Jim says:

    Public bodies NEVER implement cuts in budgets in ways that don’t impact the public the most, and themselves the least. Its always a case of making the most visual closures and service cuts possible so that pressure can be brought to bear on Central Government for more money. If they just went away and found ways of cutting costs without impacting core services, then the cutters would soon be back for more efficiency savings, which is the last thing they want. So make the cuts as painful as possible for the public, and as painless as possible for council employees, job done.

    • ThinkPurpose says:

      “If they just went away and found ways of cutting costs without impacting core services, then the cutters would soon be back for more efficiency savings, which is the last thing they want” yes, thats what happened, and nobody wanted it. It says so in the letter, and is what happened in reality.
      So we’re in agreement then.

  5. Tom Franklin says:

    The one place you are wrong is when you say “the only way to eliminate the deficit is to cut public service spending.” as it could also be done by raising taxes or not renewing trident.

    • Rick says:

      By raising taxes, maybe, but Trident won’t make much difference. Most of the projected spending is in the next decade so irrelevant to George’s deficit target.

  6. JohnM says:

    On the other hand, you do not raise taxes.
    You reduce the large and varied amount of “reliefs” available.
    Next time on the financial disaster roundabout; you just announce: “that’s it guys, you’ve had your previous £350 billion (+-lots) handouts, this time you’re a gone goose. Bye”
    Instead of tax credits, the gov sends a letter to the employer: “this guy gets £120/wk off us as a working tax credit, from now on you pay it”
    Instead of socialism for the rich, let’s have a bit of socialism for the poor?

  7. JohnM says:

    I note that others have my perverse view on “De City”:

    “Now remember, this document was written when the financial sector was behaving like a demented sociopath on Speed, engaging in just about every kind of dishonest and dirty financial practice under the sun. In just over 2 years, the Government would have to be throwing billions of pounds of tax-payers’ money at the collapsing banking industry, just to keep the flaky edifice afloat! Talk about “…recognising the skills, sophistication and ability of senior management to manage their own business risks…”

  8. Daz Wright says:

    In Birmingham we have projected that the entire City Council budget will be less than the current Social Care budget in three years. As we’re not very good at Social Care with the money we currently have this really doesn’t bode well for vulnerable people.

  9. SK says:

    And the ridiculous is that the house prices in oxford have sky rocketed while the council cannot afford to provide services.
    Simple solutions:
    -LVT instead of council tax and stamp duty
    -Remove of CGT prime residence relief

  10. colinnewlyn says:

    Cameron and Osbourne are totally focused on getting votes. They have no interest in the consequences unless it means people won’t vote for them. It’s not just that they lack any appreciation of the consequences of their actions (as evidenced by Cameron’s letter), they are not interested in trying to understand them. Their economic plans make no sense because they are political in nature. Let’s hope it all collapses under it’s own improbability and buries them beneath it. Soon.

    • Blissex says:

      «Cameron and Osbourne are totally focused on getting votes. They have no interest in the consequences unless it means people won’t vote for them.»

      That is called “democracy”! In a democracy the goal is to ensure that whatever voters are willing to vote for gets done, not what wise philosopher-kings would do in their place.

      Which policies get enacted and which consequences they have in a democracy depends on the will of the voters as measured by who gets a parliamentary majority. If the voters don’t like those policies and consequences they won’t return a parliamentary majority committed to them. It is really as a simple as that.

      We cannot criticize D Cameron and G Osborne for doing what voters have elected them, and re-elected them, to do, and which continue to be popular policies, as your statement above acknowledges.

      People who argue that governments are incompetent, or mean, or corrupt, can only argue that if what the government does deviates from what it was elected to do because of that incompetence, meanness or corruption. If they are doing what they were elected to do, any incompetence or meanness or corruption in their policies and their consequences must be because *voters* are incompetent or mean or corrupt.

  11. Pingback: The Spending Review – why transparency matters | Policy Exchange

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