It was inevitable that a row about whose responsibility it is for service cuts – local or central government – would surface, once the full implication of last month’s settlement on individual budgets was clear.
It was also obvious the dark arts of media spinning would come into play.
The coalition’s approach is to pass the buck to local government under the guise of localism. So all cuts are, therefore, a local issue, and ministers are mere bystanders who have devolved powers and can, therefore, not be blamed for what ensues. Fair enough. Councils back localism, accept they are having to shoulder a large burden of deficit-reduction, and agree it is up to them how they make difficult decisions about priorities.
However, it is not unreasonable to ask that ministers, in turn, practice what they preach on localism. It would even be nice to hear some praise from time to time, considering the reductions councils are being expected to bear.
In fact, what we have been seeing in the past few weeks is a drip-drip trashing of the sector through selected sympathetic media. The latest example was in a Sunday newspaper last weekend, suggesting that councils were hiking fees and charges – or what it called ‘stealth taxes’ – to pay for managers’ salaries and pensions. This followed ministerial claims that rubbish was not being collected for as much as a month over Christmas, which was hotly denied by the LGA. Then there was the usual assault on senior salaries, with ministerial complaints that only a handful of chiefs had taken pay cuts.
Personally, I believe raising fees and charges well above inflation is a bad idea for councils, poisoning relations with residents and yielding diminishing returns as it meets consumer resistance. But that is their choice. It certainly hasn’t stopped the train operators, Transport for London, energy utilities, credit card issuers, oil companies, and the chancellor from whacking above-inflation rises on the public.
Ministers should make a New Year’s resolution to let local authorities decide their own priorities – rightly or wrongly – and accept councils are grappling with the biggest funding cuts in decades, and could do with the occasional word of encouragement.