With under a week to go until Christmas, the Tories’ very own Santa Claus, Eric Pickles, delivered a sack full of unwanted presents to many of the hardest pressed councils in England on Wednesday. Durham County Council will receive cuts of 1.3% to its budget in 2013-14, whilst Newcastle will get a reduction of 1.5% in its funding from central government. However, West Oxfordshire Council—home of the Prime Minister’s Witney constituency—will get an increase of 2.8%.
Pickles seemed rather pleased with himself when he told Parliament yesterday that “Newcastle has a spending power per household of £2,522, which is well over £700 more than the £1,814 per household in Wokingham”. And as numerous Labour MPs rose to ask questions about the impact of the cuts on their area, Mr Pickles mostly just regurgitated back the spending power of their local authority. Such selective use of statistics, however, is very misleading, a point I made to him yesterday in the Commons: Pickles did not take into account the vast differences between the demands on services across different authorities.
9.7% of the residents in my authority of County Durham claim housing benefit—administered by local government—to top up their wages, compared to 4.6% of the population of Pickles’ Brentwood. And there are 101 children looked after by the council in Newcastle for every 10,000, compared to just 20 in Wokingham. So, each household in Newcastle may well have over £700 spent more per year on them than an equivalent in Wokingham. But this is a pretty redundant statistic when one acknowledges how much more authorities like Newcastle and Durham have to spend on services to help some of the poorest communities in the country. The key factor is local need, something entirely overlooked by ministers in the defence of their policy.
Therefore, Eric Pickles is a) being disingenuous with his use of numbers; b) doesn’t really understand the vital services that local authorities deliver for many of Britain’s most hard up communities; or c) doesn’t care and knows exactly what he’s doing: rewarding Tory voting areas in the Home Counties at the expense of the rest of the country. Unfortunately for him, none of these reflect well on his performance and abilities as Secretary of State.
It is Labour-led local authorities who are now on the frontline, dealing with the often devastating effect of the Tory-Lib Dem cuts. Many northern councils face devastating cuts, while demand for their services rise. Pickles’ strategy has been to blame the cuts on local councils, giving the impression that his actions have had nothing to do with it. On the contrary, the pain being faced by many local councils comes as a direct result of Tory and Liberal Democrat decision making at the heart of Government.
To rub salt into the wound, the Secretary of State packaged his announcement as “a fair settlement—fair to north and south, fair to rural and urban areas and fair to shires and mets”. Mr Pickles is obviously from the school of Tories who seems to think that the public will believe Government policies are fair, just because ministers say they are.
Clearly Pickles understands the importance of the language of fairness and the right platitudes to make. What he doesn’t grasp, however, is that those who will have to bear the brunt of his Government’s cuts know that his measures are not fair. Just like the majority of those strivers hit by George Osborne’s benefits cap, those councils, council tax payers and the most vulnerable will know they are getting a raw deal, despite the Secretary of State’s warm words.
The leader of Pickles’ Brentwood council, Louise McKinley, yesterday urged other local authorities to “take tough choices without winging on the sidelines”. With Sure Start centres closing and services to disabled children being hit, people from the poorest areas of the UK have the right to ask why it is they who will be suffering the most from DCLG’s axe wielding, whilst those in the Prime Minister’s affluent constituency will receive more.
This isn’t about “winging”; it’s about a basic sense of fairness, something which seems to have eluded Eric Pickles.
Kevan Jones is the Member of Parliament for North Durham and is the Shadow Armed Forces Minister.