Britain has in Eric Pickles a Secretary of State for local government who can barely conceal his contempt for local services and the people who rely on them. Because he failed to defend funding for those services during the Government’s recent spending review, the Treasury is imposing far harsher cuts on local services than any national Government department is facing. Even worse, Mr Pickles has agreed that those cuts will be frontloaded meaning deeper cuts in the first year rather than spreading the pain evenly over a number of years, so the butchery of services is far more savage than it needs to be.
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his Spending Review last October, he told the country that local services would be cut by 7.1% a year for four years. That was bad enough, but when the spreadsheets came through a few days later some councils found they were facing reductions of up to 20% in the first year alone – and the councils with the biggest cuts were those serving the poorest communities.
When Mr Pickles was confronted in public with the scale of frontloading, he denied it. When councils forwarded him the spreadsheets that proved what he’d agreed, he said he’d have a look. But instead of helping the people who rely on those services Mr Pickles fiddled the figures. He came up with a wheeze that he calls ‘total spending power’. This takes the amount a council had to spend in the current year then adds in money that was part of the National Health Service budget. By falsely inflating the starting point in this way Mr Pickles can make the percentage reduction look smaller, even though it isn’t if you compare like with like. And so Mr Pickles tours the TV studios claiming that no council will face a reduction greater than 8.9% in the first year when he knows that next year alone the average council will face a cut of 11% compared with this year, and many councils – including Lambeth – face reductions that are even higher. To help him be more honest, Lambeth has reported Mr Pickles to the UK Statistics Authority for misuse of statistics as he attempts to mislead the public.
But Mr Pickles’ smokescreen goes further than just fiddling the figures. He also claims that service cuts would not be necessary if senior pay levels were lower and if councils were not squirreling away vast sums of money. He is trying to construct a narrative that says cuts in services have nothing to do with him or the Government and everything to do with councils he hopes to smear as greedy, profligate and incompetent. A brief look at the facts exposes this for the shameless travesty it really is.
Lambeth’s base budget is £310m. Over the next four years the Government will cut that by over £90m. Mr Pickles has not explained how it is possible to cut nearly a third out of the budget without touching the frontline services it pays for because he knows it’s not possible. Instead, he spews out bluster and bombast that has nothing to do with solving the problem.
He talks about senior pay levels. But even if our council sacked – not just cut the pay, but sacked – all our senior staff, it would not save even 1% of the £90m he is cutting from our funding. He talks about ‘stealth taxes’ as councils increase charges for services like parking, but he doesn’t explain that those fees pay only for that particular service and are going up because his funding reductions mean we no longer have enough money left to subsidise them. He talks about unreasonable levels of reserves. But most councils, like Lambeth, only have reserves at the level required by the Government’s own auditor – and without which he would attack us for being reckless. Taking his deception a step further, Mr Pickles conjures up even higher levels of ‘reserves’ by adding in sums of money that have nothing to do with reserves but are sums the council must hold because they are due to be spent on services later in the year or because we are required to hold them against risks such as debtors who don’t pay up. Mr Pickles knows all this, but his purpose is to create a smokescreen of deceit to cover up his own responsibility for closing down services.
Councils are sharing back-office costs and delivering services together more than ever before in an attempt to protect frontline services. But the scale of cuts Mr Pickles is imposing make it more difficult to make those changes because, initially, there is always an upfront cost of making a change – such as redundancy costs or investing in a shared IT platform – before you see the savings in future years. It’s noticeable, too, that Mr Pickles is not sharing his own department’s ‘chief executive’ – its Principal Secretary – with any other national Government department in the way he’s saying that councils should.
From April, Lambeth will have £37m less to spend than in the current year. We have worked hard to minimise the impact on frontline services by making £24m of those savings in back-office and support functions. That still leaves £13m cuts in services. But if Mr Pickles hadn’t frontloaded the cuts, the total reduction would have been covered without affecting frontline services at all. That’s why it’s fair to say that every single service closure, every single service cut, is Mr Pickles’ fault.
The real tragedy is that Mr Pickles’ failure to defend funding for public services will see those services ripped away from the people who rely on them the most. Every closed library, every child denied the care they need, every housebound pensioner who loses her home help, every resident whose road is left pockmarked with potholes, should blame Mr Pickles for their plight. The fact is, if Mr Pickles knew what he was doing when he agreed cuts on this scale then he is being dishonest in trying to cover it up, and if he didn’t realise the impact of what he’d agreed then he’s not up to the job. Either way, the future for local services in this country looks bleak for as long as this man remains in his job.