Yesterday we featured David Curry's striking warning about difficult years ahead for local government. In his valedictory speech to the House of Commons he also issued a warning to his party about Europe and Britain's place in the world.
Britain is still in search of its place in the world: "One of the reasons why I came into politics was a feeling that my generation had inherited a country that was in rapid transformation and, in many ways, had not come to terms with it. Britain was the sick man of Europe in my youth, when I was at university. When I was 18, in 1962, Dean Acheson, the American Secretary of State, made a speech in which he said:
"Great Britain has lost an Empire and not yet found a role."
I am leaving this House 48 years after Dean Acheson made that speech, and I believe that that dilemma for the United Kingdom remains unresolved."
Obama has further downgraded the UK-US relationship: "We cling to an increasingly asymmetric relationship with the United States. I would not want us not to have a particular relationship with the United States, but increasingly we cannot sustain it on the basis of that old idea that something very special is at its heart. The current President has less interest in that idea than some-perhaps less than any other-of his predecessors whose roots went back to Europe."
Tories need to be more positive about Europe: "Benches, given my party leadership's decision to have constructive engagement on Europe, and its extraordinarily elegant and, from my point of view, extremely welcome climbdown on the referendum pledge. We are perennially reluctant Europeans, yet no sane party has come up with a plan B on Europe. I look forward to seeing, from the perspective of my greenhouse, the changed reaction towards Europe of Conservative Back Benchers if they sit on the Government Benches, as opposed to the Opposition. I know that Europe has huge problems. In a sense, its bluff is being called: how can one create an economic union without the political union that goes with it? But the ability of the Europeans to cobble something together that works is absolutely astonishing. In a sense, there is something rather British about being able to put something together on an improvised basis that manages to carry on."
Britain needs to stop punching above its weight, but at its weight: "We talk about punching above our weight, but a person can only punch above their weight for a certain number of rounds, and then they get flattened. I do not want us to punch above our weight. I want us to work out what our weight is and punch at it. I do not want to go a gram above our weight. We send our young soldiers to die in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we do not have the means to sustain over a long term the total support that means that we can carry through those missions with complete success. If we are honest, we ended up in Iraq, in Basra, not in a glorious episode, but in a somewhat humiliating one. When it comes to the intervention in Afghanistan, I want to be able to say that we will see things through, so that I can say that those young people did not die in vain. If we cannot sustain those operations in the long term, we should not embark on them. I would say to an incoming Government: look hard at the UK. Look at us from the outside as well as from the inside. Turn the telescope around sometimes, and look through both ends. What can we really do? What is it reasonable to ask our citizens to sustain? What is the effective power or weight of the United Kingdom in the modern world, where we spend all our time talking about the impact of globalisation? In the end, of course things boil down to budgets and economic performance, but we need to look honestly in the mirror of our national identity and national capability. If we do that, the next Government will perhaps be able to answer the challenge that Dean Acheson set 48 years ago, which, in many ways, has governed my political life."
In his final speech to the House of Commons, David Curry MP warns of very difficult years ahead for local government. Mr Curry was a local government minister in the Major years, responsible for the highly successful City Challenge programme.
5% cuts are coming to local government: "The crunch for local government will come not this year but in 2011-12 and 2012-13, because the comprehensive spending review takes care of the present year. However, if there is a cut in grant of something like 5 per cent., which is not an unreasonable assumption, given the pressures that we are under and the fact that local government is not one of the "safeguarded" services, serious decisions will have to be taken and there will be serious consequences. Recession drives up demand. It drives up demand for free school meals. It drives up demand from self-carers who fall back on welfare because they can no longer finance their care, and it drives up the cost of home-school transport. Those are only three areas in which recession inevitably pushes up costs."
Cuts are coming at a time when local government faces flat revenues: "We must also consider demographic demand-we do not need to go into the familiar argument of what an ageing population means-and the fact that recession leads to income being constrained from things such as tourism, and car parking and planning charges. Many local authorities depend heavily on those charges to maintain a relatively modest council tax, or at least to mitigate its impact. However, the council tax is not a buoyant tax. We have already heard about house building, and a low level of house building means that there is no buoyancy in the council tax. Local government will therefore face a huge problem, even with the best will in the world."
Three factors that are pushing up local government costs: "If one then looks at the longer term, however, and considers the three big factors driving costs, the situation becomes much more difficult. First, there are the consequences of what we might call the baby P issue. Whenever there is one of these ghastly episodes where a child has suffered appalling mistreatment and has died, the impact on the reactions of social services departments is bound to come through, in the sense of them playing safe and not taking risks, and that enhances demand-and rightly so; one understands that. Secondly, there is the demographic time bomb of adult care, plus the special demands of high-dependency cases, which will now impact much more severely. Thirdly, there is the old question of the waste and landfill targets; as they are winched up, the costs for local government get higher and higher."
Public services cannot be safeguarded in this environment: "Those are three huge, emotional, high-volume and high-cost issues. Add that to the recession and we see that local government is facing the perfect storm. We can talk until we are blue in the face about safeguarding public services, but they will not be safeguarded. Nobody can, and nobody will, safeguard them. Some services can be hit harder than others, but even then we have to be careful, because there is no point in saying, "We're going to make a special case of the health service" if the consequence is that social services get particularly badly hit. So many of the outcomes in health depend on effective social services. They have to be treated together. If we dislocate the pair of them, what is gained on the swings will be lost on the roundabout."
Tomorrow we will highlight David Curry's valedictory words on Europe.
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