Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Tory council boss on Eric Pickles' 'fair cuts' claim: it's 'bollocks'

Just over a year ago, as the most devastating cuts to local government in modern times were unveiled, you may recall the communities secretary Eric Pickles assured us we were all in it together:

"This will be a progressive settlement and fair between different parts of the country."
It was clear at the time that quite a few councils viewed Pickles' claim with contempt and disbelief, although it was principally Labour-run councils which were prepared to openly say so. A fascinating new report now confirms what was much whispered about at the time but largely unsaid: that many Tory-run councils were equally appalled.
Here's a senior executive at a Conservative-run authority in a deprived area, quoted in that Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) study of the impact of local authority spending cuts in England:

"Stop believing what the government tells you. All the stuff that the government said was a complete nonsense. Our [grant] budget cut this year from DCLG is (much larger than the government figure). They've made up this new formula which is to say that our complete income generating power, including Council Tax receipts, is X. Bollocks. It's a lot harder than he [Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for CLG] would like to make out."
Here's another view - a fairly typical one among executives we spoke to, says the report - expressed by a senior manager at a Tory-led authority:

"This is the most unfair and unjust settlement I have ever seen."
So what were those Tory councils so angry about? The report, written by a group of Heriot Watt University academics, addresses in detail Pickles' methodology, which it says sought to minimise the scale and inequitable distribution of the cuts by rolling up councils various funding streams into a new compound "spending power" assessment.
The report says (page 14):

"On the whole we would characterise the government's presentation of the local government part of the Comprehensive Spending Review and the subsequent local government grant settlement as not wholly transparent and potentially misleading."
Pickles announced on 13 December 2010 that no council would lose more than a 8.9% cut in "spending power" in 2011-12. The most deprived councils would get the "lion's share" of the funding. Those areas, he said, would be given "more weight". Look at Hackney in east London, he said: it gets £1,043 per head, compared to £125 per head in Wokingham, in leafy Berkshire.
But Hackney always did get more per capita funding - the distribution formula reflects the greater social needs and costs of inner city living - so that wasn't a surprise, or evidence that deprived areas were being protected. What Pickles didn't say - but the JRF report points out - is that while Hackney as expected continued to receive more cash per head than Wokingham, its residents had taken a far bigger hit.
According to the JRF report (see table two, page 15), Hackney's "spending power" reduction in per head of population cash terms in 2011-12 was £180. In Wokingham it was £4. You see similar patterns with other councils: Liverpool saw spending power cut by £162 per head; in Windsor and Maidenhead it was just £7. And so on.
The report batches England's local authorities into five groups, sorted by degree of deprivation, to make a similar point (table five, page 21): in the most deprived group the percentage spending power cut was 15.4%; in the least deprived it was 12.1%.
I spoke to Glen Bramley, one of the report's authors, and he gave me the per capita cash figures for those groups: the most deprived councils were cut by £199 per head; the least deprived saw cuts of £86.
Is that fair and equal? Pickles was very clear about this. In his December 2010 statement he said:

"Funding fairness underpins this settlement."
As you might expect, the cuts unfairness translates pretty clearly in political terms: in 2011-12 Labour-run single tier authorities shouldered a "spending power" cuts burden amounting to 7.2% (-£1,089 per head); in Tory boroughs it was just half that - 3.6% (but less marked in cash terms at -£855). In Lib Dem-controlled authorities it was 5.1%. Next year, 2012-13 it will be similarly skewed, though less marked.

I asked the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) to comment on JRF's claims that Pickles' presentation of the cuts as fair and progressive were "misleading". A spokesman replied:

"The settlement is fair between different parts of the country - north and south, rural and urban, metropolitan and shire. Funding is being directed to where it is needed most so councils can protect the front-line services people rely on, shield the most vulnerable places, safeguard the most vulnerable people, and protect taxpayers' interests.
"For example, the average spending power per dwelling (not including police) in Hackney will be £3,050 compared with £1,537 in Windsor and Maidenhead. The English average is £2,186."
As you can see, CLG has not only repeated Pickles' earlier sleight of hand - by presenting spending level figures rather than cuts comparisons - but has changed the terms of the comparison from spending per capita to spending per dwelling. It's also pushed the financial year ahead to 2012-13.
Why? I checked the government's own spending-per-dwelling spending power data to see if changing the comparators told a different story: but it doesn't (a link to the relevant CLG spreadsheet can be found on bullet point four of notes to editor section of this page). They show that every dwelling in Hackney will face a £221 cash cut for the financial year starting April 2012, equivalent to 6.8%. In Windsor and Maidenhead, the cash cut will be £28, or 1.89%.The most disadvantaged communities, confirms JRF, are shouldering the burden of the cuts, both proportionately and in absolute terms, and with little of the capacity of more affluent households to cope with the withdrawal of local services, whether libraries, youth clubs or Sure Start. The design and phasing of Pickles' cuts programme, it says, made this "inevitable".One might expect the government to spin and mislead; but it only adds fuel to the JRF thesis that at a national political level, addressing deprivation has been "substantially de-emphasised in national policy making".
At the grass roots, for the poorest people in the most deprived communities, facing the biggest cuts, the future is more stark: in these areas, speculates the report, it is no longer even certain whether:

"...English local government can continue to serve deprived communities."
with courtesy of Guardian

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