Posted by: iangilbert | June 4, 2010

Confusion Grips Local Government

Local government in Southend and elsewhere is in a state of limbo while we wait to hear what our new Conservative and Lib Dem masters have in store for us.

Considering the Conservatives have long had a stated aim to cut the government’s deficit by £6bn (which they haven’t seen fit to deviate from even though the national debt was revised down by £5.5bn in May) it’s quite amazing that they haven’t been able to give councils a clearer idea of their plans. The Conservative claim that the deficit could be cut simply by eliminating waste was always questionable, and the fallacy of that argument will become increasingly clear over the next few months.

Somewhat predictably, the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition will seek to pass the buck to local government. They will give us flexibility to choose what to cut, but cut we certainly must.

We know that the government plans to cut grants to councils by about £1.2bn. We know that the main ‘formula grant’ isn’t going to be cut, leaving a plethora of other grants that the government gives to councils for specific purposes. What we don’t know is how much of those £1.2bn cuts will fall in Southend and which grants will be affected. This is not something that we can be relaxed about, these are real services that we’ve planned to deliver that may have to be axed in a month’s time.

For example, the money that The Department for Education gives to councils may be reduced by around a quarter according to some guesses. By far the largest chunk of money that Southend gets is for Connexions – this is not wasteful spending, this provides vital advice and support for young people. Other area based grants are earmarked for cutting child pregnancy rates (an area that Southend has had considerable success in), dealing with substance abuse by young people, starting up extended school services, and various other school support services. These services are not headline grabbing, but you can’t cut them without having a real long-term impact. Similar arguments apply to grants from the Department for Communities & Local Government and the Department for Transport.

At the moment, not only are we being kept in the dark about where and how these cuts will fall, we don’t even know when we’ll find out. If the Conservatives/Lib Dems try to say ‘but we’ve only just seen the books’ to explain their delay, they will be being dishonest, the value and purpose of these grants has always been matters of public record. It’s not as if they’re waiting to consult councils, because they’re not doing that at all.

At the same time as it is cutting local government funding, the government is completely overhauling the regime under which it operates. Some of these changes may be for the better in the long term, but councils will need time to adjust, and time costs money. The whole planning system is going to be radically altered, regional planning and regional targets are being abolished.

Giving councils more flexibility over planning policy sounds great, doesn’t it? But is there much point in Southend Council building a road that stops dead at the local authority boundary? The need for councils to co-operate on transport is obvious. A little thought will make it clear that the same argument applies to housing and other local services.

Southend is not an island, the demand for housing will be partly influenced by the housing market in Rochford, Castle Point etc. Abolishing the housing targets will not change the fact that we’ve got 5,000 people on the housing waiting list and many people living in desperately overcrowded conditions. There has been a remarkable cross-party consensus on the need for more affordable housing in Southend, but if Southend continues to build while neighbouring authorities do not, people in Southend will feel a sense of unfairness if we’re making sacrifices to make up for other people’s inaction.

The need for some sort of co-ordination between neighbouring authorities is obvious, but the formal mechanism for that to happen is being abolished, and councils will be under pressure to reduce rather than increase their staff. This could be a recipe for chaos.

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