While David Cameron launches his oft-delayed green paper on localism today, Tory councillors up and down the country will be putting finishing touches to their annual budgets, spurred on by this piece on ConservativeHome. The author, a member of Cameron’s flagship Tory authority in Hammersmith & Fulham, and regular columnist for the Daily Mail, is one Councillor Harry Phibbs.
Harry suggests “100 ways to cut the Council Tax without cutting key services”, Of course, councils of all political complexion are committed to keeping council tax down and protecting services. What is puzzling is what Harry’s definition of ‘key services’ is. Apart from the rare well-made point, this list is populated with cuts to services for looked-after children, older people and the disabled. It calls for cuts to staff and funding for youth services, and the end of funding to any black and minority ethnic community groups, dismissing them as ‘racially separatist’.
A glance through Phibbs’ Daily Mail articles leaves little doubt as to the flavour of his politics, but party flags aside, when I sit down with Conservative, Liberal Democrat and independent colleagues at the Local Government Association, what invariably and genuinely emerges is a shared commitment to excellent local services, strong local decision making and value for money. Each of us knows that the current economic situation means that while we must tighten our belts, it is imperative that we are able to provide the kind of support and services that people expect, especially when they are worried about homes, jobs and family budgets.
The LGA Labour Group recently published Leading the Way, a pamphlet showing how Labour councils are taking the lead in providing services and support to those who have lost jobs or whose positions are insecure, those struggling to pay their rent and mortgages, and giving extra help on everyday costs for those finding it hard to stay within the family budget.
By all means let’s look at where savings can be made, local government is a huge sector, but the Treasury’s own figures show that councils are amongst the most efficient in the public sector. With over 800 different functions, making sweeping statements about ‘limiting staff training to the minimum’, for example, is meaningless bordering on the irresponsible. Does that include social workers looking after children? Does that include the environmental health officers testing the food you buy in shops and restaurants? Does that include the staff processing housing benefits? Which of these would Councillor Phibbs like to have less training?
Labour councillors and MPs are working together to get more information on the cuts being imposed by Tory councils and proposed by Tory oppositions across the country. We need to know more about their plans, so that we can demonstrate to the public, not what the Tories might theoretically do in government, but what they are already doing with the power they have. This may be miles away from the warm words of David Cameron, but behind the pastel tones and the softer logo remains a predominantly unreformed, parochial and illiberal party, too many of whom hark back with unabashed glee at the eye-watering cuts and central control of the 80s. Beware the loony right.
What can you do?
If you are a local Labour councillor or activist, let us know about proposed Tory and LibDem cuts in your areas, this will feed directly into the work we are doing within the party to make the dividing lines between the parties even clearer.
Sir Jeremy Beecham is the Leader of the LGA Labour Group and a long-serving member of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee. Contact the LGA Labour Group.