10 Feb 2011

Liberal Democrat councillors attack cuts

More than 80 Liberal Democrat councillors attack the Government over local spending cuts – but an expert tells Channel 4 News the cuts are not unreasonable.

Liberal Democrat councillors attack Government spending cuts (Getty)

The local politicians condemned the pace and scale of the Coalition Government’s spending cuts, warning that they would damage the economy and hit the most vulnerable.

In the open letter sent by 88 Liberal Democrat councillors, they accused Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles of “letting down” users of council services, and of refusing to work with councillors.

These cuts will have an undoubted impact on all frontline council services. Liberal Democrat letter to the Government

“These cuts will have an undoubted impact on all frontline council services, including care services to the vulnerable. Rather than assist the country’s recovery by making savings to the public in a way that can protect local economies and the front line, the cuts are structured in such a way that they will do the opposite,” the letter, published in The Times newspaper, said.

Political frustration

The letter exposes the rift that lies at the heart of Nick Clegg‘s Liberal Democrats: for some, the compromises they have made to gain power are too large and they are frustrated by the direction of change.

It follows the removal of Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Lord Oakeshott, which was confirmed live on Channel 4 News on Wednesday – who left his role after saying the Government’s ‘Project Merlin’ deal with the banks was “arrogant” and “incompetent”, and further reinforces the divisions in the party.

'Blunt instrument - but not unreasonable'
"Cutting the money is a blunt instrument but overall there is a huge amount of inertia and complacency in local government," Stephen Taylor, the former Chief Executive of the Leadership Centre for Local Government and founder of Blakesley Associates, told Channel 4 News.

"There's quite a lot of money to be saved by making support services more efficient - but things like not having biscuits will not save enough money. Councils need to think about more innovative ways of delivering front line services.

"For example, libraries - an American company is saying it can run them at a much lower cost, and I think that's probably true. Some councils only spend 2.2 per cent of their library budgets on books - you have to wonder where the other money goes.

"Why are there 32 London boroughs? Why are there areas which still have two tiers of local government when one works much better? Why have councils been so slow to share services?

"Some areas will feel more pain than others but generally it is a good thing to force them to address these issues. They are looking at spending reductions of 7 per cent on average; in the private sector there are companies which have lost 80 per cent of their income. Of course it is harder to cut local government spending, because some is locked in, but on the whole it is not unreasonable to ask them to look at this."

It is also the latest local government blow to the Coalition’s plans, after Manchester City Council this week described the “devastating” cuts programme it was facing. Conservative Local Government Minister Grant Shapps described the cuts as a “cynical” political move by a Labour council.

Last week, Liverpool City Council pulled out of the Big Society agenda, saying it was not compatible with the cuts the council faced.

Where the cuts will bite - and what councils are doing

Gunboat diplomacy

The letter goes on to defend local government spending and its commitment to the Big Society – but criticises Mr Pickles’ “gunboat diplomacy”.

“Local government has made efficiency savings of 3 per cent in each of the past eight years – in stark contrast to the runaway spending of central Government under the previous administration. We’ve also been planning for further savings since the true state of the economy became apparent six months ago.

While I fully understand the real challenges councils face, I think it will be much better to direct all our energy to solving these problems rather than falling out between ourselves. Liberal Democrat Communities Minister Andrew Stunell

“What has been delivered is a difficult cuts package across all Government departments but clearly the most severe is to local government.

The council leaders said the cuts are coming so quickly they do not have time to reform services without cutting jobs.

“The Secretary of State’s role should be to facilitate necessary savings while promoting the advance of localism and the Big Society. Unfortunately, Eric Pickles has felt it better to shake a stick at councillors than work with us,” the officials added.

The no-cuts council
But not every council in the country feels under pressure to cut key services. Charles Royden is a Liberal Democract councillor in Brickhill in Bedford.

The Bedford Liberal Democrats tweeted to Channel 4 News that there are: "No cuts here - libraries staying open same, mobile ones too, leisure centres, children's centres, pools- ALL staying open."

They added: "You might want to come and ask us how we did it."

Speaking to Channel 4 News, Cllr Royden said that "incredibly early consultation" had allowed the council to identify the services the public most valued - and increase popular services such as buses and road works.

He said the area had cut PR budgets and bureaucracy in the council but managed to keep areas the public told him they valued, such as the Arts Council's "Youth Music" scheme.

Pointless debate

Liberal Democrat Communities Minister Andrew Stunell called for the party not to fall out over “pointless debate”.

He said: “While I fully understand the real challenges councils face, I think it will be much better to direct all our energy to solving these problems rather than falling out between ourselves.

“I know just how keen every one of my DCLG ministerial colleagues is to end Whitehall domination of local government and we are strongly committed to delivering that quickly. It would be a real lost opportunity if we let that slip while we engage in pointless debate. Let’s get round the table and just sort this out.”

Criticisms 'inevitable' - but local government in difficult position
"It was inevitable Lib Dem councillors would get fed up, particularly given Eric Pickles' bravura performance attacking local government for being inefficient and going on the offensive, creating diversionary flak," Tony Travers, local government expert at the London School of Economics, told Channel 4 News.

"I think Mr Pickles has been very clever, he knows what he is doing – drawing attention away from the scale of the cuts and saying, 'if only council chief executives were paid less, all would be fine.' But this wouldn't work – even if we didn't have any chief executives, it would only save modest sums overall.

"Many council leaders have privately been saying this – perhaps because the Liberal Democrats are in the Coalition they feel more of a need to go off 'pop' about the unfairness of facing the deepest cuts for years while being criticised for being inefficient.

"Every organisation can be more efficient. But in context, local government grants are going to fall by about 10 per cent this year, reducing their spending power by around 5 per cent. If you look at the equivalent in the NHS, the spending power is actually going up in cash...but nobody is attacking the NHS for inefficiency. Local government is probably more efficient than the NHS.

"I think what Richard Kemp [leader of the Lib Dems in local government] and his Lib Dem colleagues are hoping is that Nick Clegg will assert himself at the core of government over this."