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Special report: Brighton and Hove council cuts and the threat to local government
Brighton and Hove City Council has been left with £50 million of savings to find over the next two years after estimates on the required cuts doubled in a matter of weeks. As the government announced new powers for the city council yesterday, Tim Ridgway asks city leaders whether we are witnessing a rebirth or the slow death of local government.
Time and again other council leaders of all political colours tell me about their anger at resources being stripped away suddenly from their council budgets.
Over the last few weeks, a devastating series of recent Government announcements suggest that their cuts to our budget for next year have jumped up from £14 million to about £25 million.
However, we still don’t know for sure, and won’t until at least December. The constant moving of goalposts makes long term planning and consultation with residents in the city very difficult.
What we’re seeing is the government chipping away at funding for the things that councils have to do – looking after the elderly, caring for vulnerable children and collecting rubbish.
The Government’s rate of cuts means that in just a few years, there’ll be no money for councils to do anything apart from these basic services.
And while we’re sometimes able to get money into the city from campaign organisations, national government or Europe to do one-off projects, this money usually can’t be spent on these key council services.
What about localism? While there have been a few changes allowing us to make some local choices, they’re a drop in the ocean compared with the massive budget cuts and new diktats from the coalition.
There are still some ways in which money can be saved – and that is why we’re looking to cut our energy bills, move into more efficient and compact offices, and working with other councils to save money on bulk buying.
However, recent research showed that contrary to some claims, councils are the most efficient area of government. And councils have already been cut far more than other parts of government – 28% cut from councils whilst just 8% from Whitehall by some estimates.
However, the consensus between Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems is that cuts to local government will continue long into the next Parliament.
We are in a fight for the future of local government, and the very existence of local councils hangs in the balance. Squeezing and slicing budgets won’t be enough to deal with government cuts.
Many councils are being forced to stop providing some services altogether.
No major party has explicitly stated that they are seeking to end the idea of independent local government, but that is where we are headed if we do not act now.
Unless we shift Westminster’s thinking, we will see councils irreversibly wither away over the next few years, and we’ll lose many of the services that so many residents value.
Conservative group leader Geoffrey Theobald said: “From the council point of view we have to look at the best way of delivering these services.
“I think services will be dealt with in a different way, perhaps by collaboration with other councils, perhaps by sharing services with the voluntary sector and some things could be dealt with by the private sector.
“I think one of the problems in Brighton and Hove is that the Green administration does not have the political appetite to do that.
“If you ask residents they are not that interested in who provides it, just that it’s delivered in the most cost-effective way. We have to look at the most costeffective way of delivering services.”
Coun Theobald would not be drawn on what services could become privately-run but suggested human resources as one area where the council could save money by sharing it with other authorities.
Gill Mitchell, leader of Labour and Co-op group, said: “When the last chief executive was recruited in 2009 it was clear we were heading for an unprecedented time for local authorities.
“We cannot continue salami slicing individual budgets. The Greens have got to get real and realise that the chips are down.”
When asked about privatising some services, Coun Mitchell said: “At this time it’s not something we would reach for.”
Coun Mitchell added she preferred a “co-operative model” where users and those delivering it took shared ownership of a service.
Mark Turner, of the GMB, said: “This was going to be the better year with reductions in Government grant.
“We thought we knew where we were with £14 million but this latest Government announcement in the last few days is absolutely outrageous.
That’s playing Russian roulette with people’s lives.”
Mr Turner said the “death knell was ringing”
for councils across the country, adding if the Government continued on its current path then all local authorities would have to decide what they could deliver.
He said: “This Government is not for localism. It will leave councils just as a statutory body which will have an administrative centre to collect council tax, pay certain benefits and that’s it.
“There’s debate over what is a statutory service.”
Among those services which could be affected are street cleansing, libraries, bin collections, parks, and parts of children’s and adult social care.
Mr Turner said: “It’s painful for us all. At the end of the day people like myself have to look at livelihoods of people and try and protect as we possibly can.”
At the recent budget event held by the New Economics Foundation, five options were looked at how it could work in the future.
These were: A Just the basics – resident are then charged for everything else.
B Prevention rather than cure – council spends more now tackling problems like antisocial behaviour before they cost more later on.
C Keeping services not cutting them – services delivered are tailored to individual needs even if this means charging everyone more money.
D Partnership council – services delivered through a partnership of the council, private sector and voluntary sector.
E Go for growth – council spends more to help grow the local economy.
After the discussion, two further choices were added in to replace D.
F Community cooperative coproduction – supporting cooperatives to deliver services on a not-for-profit basis with any surplus reinvested.
G Focus on efficiency – council is transparent about spending and makes efficiency savings wherever we can.
From the discussion B, C and F were more preferred than other options.
The city deal
While the city’s leader complains that cuts are threatening the very existence of councils, the Government yesterday revealed new powers could be handed to Brighton and Hove as part of plans to help the city grow.
The Government has identified the city as one of 20 areas across the country to compete for the latest stage of its City Deal scheme.
If successful, this would see the Government devolve powers in exchange for responsibility for delivering growth locally.
However, this will mean greater responsibility for decision makers to make sure the city provides jobs and creates business in the area.
Jason Kitcat, Brighton and Hove City Council leader, said: “We are really excited about the potential for Brighton and Hove to benefit from a City Deal.”
It comes after the first wave was signed off by the Government and eight major cities, including Manchester, Nottingham and Liverpool in July.
Among the powers passed down were budgets for running transport schemes; cash to create apprenticeship hubs; powers to “earn back” tax from the Treasury; and create a “Dragons Den-style” fund to invest in high-tech start up firms.
Yesterday, the Government widened this out to a further 20 cities.
Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg said: “I want Brighton and Hove to come up with ambitious and innovative proposals to help them make changes that will be felt by everyone across their region.”
Brighton and Hove will be asked to put forward its proposal by January 15.
Among its competitors will be the Black Country; Greater Cambridge; Coventry and Warwickshire; Hull and Humber; Milton Keynes; Greater Norwich; Southampton and Portsmouth; Southend; Stoke and Staffordshire; and Tees Valley.
Government officials said not all cities should expect to be awarded a deal.
A decision will be announced by November 2013.
History of cuts
Brighton and Hove City Council has a budget of more than £700 million and about 8,000 staff.
However this has shrunk, and is set to shrink further, as Government cuts take hold.
- 2013/14 - about £25 million of savings (estimate)
- 2012/13 – about £25 million of savings (estimate)
- 2011/12 – about £18 million savings, between 100 and 120 posts lost, some public toilets closed, library hours reduced, parking tariffs hiked
- 2010/11 – about £34 million savings, about 100 posts lost.
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