Christmas budget musings

December 18, 2014 8:29 am

Christmas musings from Graeme Kenna

At this time of year when others write a list of wishes to Santa, local authority officers in England start writing theirs in their budget proposals; efficiency savings, natural wastage, outsourcing, disposal of assets, smarter working – to you, me or Santa, – cuts. There is no sign of let up in the pace of slashing of central government support, and LAs are the unhappy meat in the sandwich of rapidly decreased revenue inability to raise cash. The general election is unlikely to bring a bag of goodies to LAs whoever wins. Labour, a bit like the Morrisons* loyalty card (*others are available) promises to match any cut price of the coalition, UKIP shows as much tolerance for the costs of bureaucracy as a sclerotic Daily Mail columnist.
So what expenditure can – and can’t – be reduced? Well an authority must be able to comply with all its’ statutory duties. To give some quick broad examples,in planning, highways, housing, children’s services, adult services, libraries, school governance, allotments, registration, licencing, enforcement…

How many statutory duties are there? At last count in 2011 there were 1294 identified. They’re unlikely to have reduced.

There is almost certainly no one in your LA who knows. Yet how can an effective budget be set when you don’t know what is genuinely untouchable?

There is a resistance to doing this. Local politicians of whatever stripe want to believe they can make a difference by their policies. To them, certain expenditures are sacrosanct. But they may well not be the same items as less glamorous or popular duties. Also of course many statutes (from the National Assistance Act 1948, soon to be consigned to noble history, to the Care Act 2014, soon to be legalistically picked over word by word) give considerable powers to LAs. But these tend to be conflated by those on the ground with duties because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” and because the public has come to expect certain services to be available. Also in a world of food banks, and physically and mentally disabled ex-services personnel, where asylum seekers must prove they are “beyond destitute”, not to mention lawyers vigorously pursuing their clients interests and councillors with their own agendas, there is a natural impulse to give more than the strict letter of the law forces a body to.

But for every gain there’s a loss. And if that loss prevents you carrying out a statutory duty…
If LAs are to avoid expensive litigation, they must first know the bottom line – what is genuinely, as opposed to politically, untouchable. And they must plan now how to consult on the previously unthinkable. They won’t be supported by their political masters and will be vilified in the press and social media. But every LA should know how much its 1294 duties cost to maintain at an unchallengeable level. And other services, however desirable or essential in human terms has to be looked at. “Knowledge is power “perhaps no longer applies to these weakened beasts. But lack of knowledge is definitely further disempowering.

Have a happy Dickensian Christmas. But your LA senior officer trying to reconcile the irreconcilable isn’t Scrooge, wishing it was Christmas past, they’re Mr Micawber on one of his very very bad days.