The unsustainability of local authority budgets is not fresh news.
During my first months and year here I have sought briefings from local organisations and individuals and have had many casual conversations – and local authority finances have come up more than one might expect.
Again and again, I’ve found myself reporting what the then Chief Executive of North East Lincolnshire Council said to a gathering of local clergy there perhaps five years ago. He said that it looked as if in about five years time – that is to say, about now – the Council might not be able to afford to meet in full all its statutory obligations. What that would mean was, when all its income was needed to meet the cost of what it was legally obliged to do, there would be no money at all to spend on anything further - however good and however much it would want to do those things.
So just over a year ago, as I moved, the headlines and comments in the Grimsby Telegraph were about the closure of public toilets in Cleethorpes and local astonishment that the local authority was withdrawing from a vital service in a tourist area, and the headlines and comments in the Keighley News turned out to say exactly that same things about the public toilets in Haworth.
And just over a year on, last week, the national news is about the first County Council to announce that it was near technical bankruptcy and would be reconfiguring services to make a ‘core offer’ to meet only its minimum legal obligations.
A junior Government minister then appeared on the Radio 4. He said that this was only a single Council – without reference to the sort of thing I’ve typed above or about other Councils now close to making the same announcement. He mentioned millions of pounds in one new Government funding stream – without reference to how little this is in comparison to the actual reduction in local authority funding over the last few years. He praised specific local authorities elsewhere for their creative approach to making savings – without reference to the way the particular local authority was the first to exhaust all such options ahead of its announcement.
I wondered whether he was genuinely ignorant or being wilfully deceitful – and how anyone so ignorant or deceitful is kept in post. My guess is that he was neither - that he so focussed on his own policy commitment (to austerity and small local Government), and so habituated into channelling only the briefing notes he had, that he genuinely doesn’t see what is really going on.
(And I’m not really pointing a finger here. We have reached the point in the Church of England at which it is quite possible for national and regional statements to be about our agreed strategies, talked up with positive indications, so that the bigger picture and seriousness of the situations we face are not mentioned at all.)
I’ve looked back and found that it was actually only just over four years ago that I posted something about cuts in youth provision, clearly building on what I must have heard from the Chief Executive perhaps at about that time:
The level of cuts required... means that it isn’t possible to take a small slice out of every department, nor to make large cuts in departments which deliver services required by law, so swingeing cuts take place in departments which deliver services which, however desirable, are not required by law. And this will go on. Further equally sharp reductions in budget will follow... It is difficult to conceive of desirable but not legally required services surviving at all. The whole profile of a local authority will change. Present protests on this and other issues predicated on the local authority continuing to play its present role will come to be seen as almost literally antediluvian.
So this is about much more than the loss of public toilets (or libraries or youth centres, or of responsibility for some of them being transferred to Parish Councils or voluntary groups). It is not even simply about the most vulnerable being endangered or impoverished by minimal social provision. It is about the effective removal of a whole layer of (literally) civic society. And junior Government ministers will continue to appear on Radio 4 and say ‘move on, there is nothing to see here’ as it is being removed.
The picture is the centre of the cross behind the altar in the chapel at Gladstone’s Library, just over the Welsh border near Chester. I spent a couple of days there last week partly in retreat and partly engaged in some study.