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Local government fighting back?

Bob Colenutt on the reaction of local government to the cuts, and the influence of the May council elections.

February 18, 2011
5 min read

Local government is in revolt over the cuts. With £6.5 billion of cuts this year alone, front line services, from community centres to libraries and social care are being slashed.  Anyone with the slightest interest in local politics, who reads local papers, belongs to a voluntary organisation, or use their local library, bus services or youth centre knows there is growing public anger and dismay about the depth and ruthless nature of the cuts.

Just to give one example.  On Feb 15th Birmingham City Council announced £320 million of cuts by 2014/15 with the loss of 2500 jobs, , including £15 million of grants to voluntary organisations providing “Big Society” services to care for older people and £11 million from children services.

But at last there is growing evidence that local authorities (at least some of them) are not taking this lying down, in spite of the fact that the majority are Tory controlled.

Six local authorities (one Tory) have made a successful challenge to Gove’s decision to cut the Building Schools for the Future programme.  Plans to rebuild 58 schools abruptly cancelled by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education in July 2010, will now have to be reviewed by his department.  Although Gove has the final word on the rebuilding plans (and is unlikely to reinstate them), this  challenge is a legal shot across the bows of Central Government.  The heavy handed and some say amateurish approach to shrinking the state by the Coalition, pushing responsibility for huge cuts onto local government, is now under serious legal scrutiny.

Liverpool City Council, one of four Big Society “vanguard” authorities has pulled out saying it’s a cover for cuts.

Another important development revealing the widening splits in local government  between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats was the letter from  90 Liberal Democrat councillors to the Times on Feb 10th complaining about the way that Eric Pickles, the Local Government Minister, has taken a gung ho, even celebratory approach to cuts on local government.  Though feebly supporting the Coalition cuts strategy, the Lib Dem councillors  complained that Pickles need not have done it this way (i.e. front loaded the cuts).  Even the Tory led local Government Association (LGA) has objected to front loading, and is openly critical of the fact that local government is being blamed by the Government for making cuts to the voluntary sector (the underpinning for the Big Society).

Why is local government (at last) waking up to what is happening to local services?  The sound of local protest combined with the sight of local elections just 10 weeks away on May 5th is concentrating minds wonderfully. The elections are particularly critical for the Liberal Democrats that have a strong local government base built, ironically, upon local action, often about public services, over many years.  This base could be all but obliterated. LD strongholds are in District Councils (over 1000 councillors) and to an extent in Metropolitan Borough Councils (514 councillors) and in and Unitary Authorities (671 councillors).  Over a 1/3 of all these seats will come up or election in May.

The Liberal Democrats are particularly vulnerable to criticism that the belated Liberal Democrat protest about cuts is a cynical attempt to save seats; trying to absolve themselves of the responsibility for what is going on.

Meanwhile the Tories whose stronghold is in the County Councils in England do not come up for election in 2011.  This is significant, and might explain the front loading, since it is precisely these authorities in the shire counties that are cutting severely libraries, transport, social care and youth centres.

An indication of whether the Tory vote has been hit elsewhere will come from results in are the 36 Metropolitan Borough Council where about  1/3 of seats are coming up for election in May.  These authorities are mainly Labour controlled but Liberal Democrats and Tories have 25% of the sets each.  Also the Welsh Assembly elections that also take place in May (where the Tories currently hold 10 seats and LDs 8), will be an important indicator.

Underlying the upsurge in anger is the unequal impact of the cuts.  Recent research by the University of Newcastle for Middlesborough BC show that Northern towns and cities are taking the largest cuts for two reasons.  First they receive the largest amount of government rate support grant because they have the highest levels of deprivation and under the rate support formula they get more head.  At the same time, they receive more discretionary grant for example for regeneration which is being sharply reduced.  These authorities are squeezed as well because they are suffering the highest level of public sector job losses.

These are early days.  Many more cuts and redundancies are to come over the next 12 months.  May 5th will be an important marker.   A key question is whether local authorities will step further off the political fence and come out fighting WITH the growing numbers of local campaigns against the cuts.  It could then get interesting.

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