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Council leaders should keep calm and carry on cutting

There is a letter in The Observer this morning from a group of council leaders from different parties:

It says:

By the end of this parliament, councils' funding from central government will have been cut by 33%. In comparison, Whitehall departments will have faced average reductions of 12%.

That is a strong start. The letter goes on to imply, while not quite boasting, that councils have coped pretty well. They have the letter notes "saved hundreds of millions of pounds by teaming up to provide both back office and frontline services." The letter also makes a sensible call for "devolving budgets away from Whitehall to increase co-operation between public agencies, save money and improve services." 

Then it all goes wrong. The intelligence of the Observer reader is insulted by the implication that while these huge cuts have been absorbed with great effectiveness any further cuts would be a disaster:

This pattern cannot be repeated without it having a serious impact on local services and people.


Local government bore the brunt of cuts in the last spending review. For the sake of the public it cannot afford to do so again. 

To take just their chosen example of savings through shared services it is ludicrous to pretend no more can be done. Even my council - with a triborough arrangement with Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea - could and should be doing far more joint working - in areas including planning, housing and legal services. For most other councils progress might well be significant in ths savings achieved but still derisory in comparison to the potential.

With exquisite timing Dispatches for Channel 4 have been putting in Freedom of Information requests on council procurement card spending.

Among the findings reported in the Sunday Times(£):

  • Barking and Dagenham Council spent £10,000 on flowers for their chief executive's office.
  • Birmingham City Council spent £319,000 on foreign travel.
  • Oldham council spent £20,000 sending two employees on a “trades mission” to Hong Kong in 2008 and four council officials on a trip to China to “pursue economic collaboration” in 2009.
  • Sunderland city council spent £1,142.89 at the five-star Cape Royale hotel and spa in Cape Town during the Commonwealth Local Government Forum in May 2010. 
  • Gateshead in Tyne and Wear spent £16,703.58 visiting Komatsu city in Japan as town twinning spending.
  • In Northamptonshire, one council officer spent £272.85 on a meal at the Elephant, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Torquay.
  • Essex county council spent £467 bill at the Connaught restaurant then run by Gordon Ramsay in London.
  • Glasgow city council alone amassed a hire bill of £983,000 on staff taxis
  •  £180 of pedicure treatments as Positive Activities for Young People was spent by York city council.

For variety there were some more examples given to The Sun on Sunday:

  • Sunderland and Plymouth councils each spent £6,000 visiting the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
  • Fenland District Council, Cambs, spent £205 on golf lessons as a gift.
  • Wigan Council pays French “ambassador” Toussaint Lebeugle £20,000 a year to promote its twin town of Angers in France.

Among the signatories of whining letter to The Observer? Naturally the council leaders of Birmingham, Wigan, Sunderland, Oldham, York, Gateshead...

To say that local government has coped with sharper spending cuts than central government is true. But to say that no further cuts can be absorbed by councils as waste and inefficiency have been eliminated is laughable. You know it is nonsense. I know it is nonsense. So do the signatories to The Observer letter.

Why do they embarass themselves by making such an absurd claim?



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