Let’s talk about cuts (Baby)
You probably know by now that the cuts to local government funding have not fallen equally across the country. Because the central government grant has been cut but council tax has been rising, wealthy areas of the country, where council tax receipts are higher and demand for statutory services is lower, aren’t feeling the pinch as much. Reading Borough Council received £58 million pounds from central government for the year 2010/2011. This year (2018/19) RBC will receive £2million. Next year we will get nothing. Has the rise in council tax helped to bridge the gap? The short answer is ‘no’. The long answer is ‘The council is taking in more money through council tax, but rising costs and rising demand for services mean it’s nowhere near enough to stave off further cuts, let alone reverse them’.
Let’s talk about you and me
Reading’s income from Council Tax in 2017/18 was £80 million – that’s an average household bill of £1,171 or £488 per person. Compare that to our neighbouring Conservative councils:
- West Berkshire took £92.4m (£536 per person, £1,421 per household);
- Wokingham got £95.6m (£537pp, £1,434 per household).
This is a problem at the heart of the council tax system: because it is based on the size of the property, poorer areas where people live in flats and smaller houses and are more likely to need council services such as social care raise less money than affluent areas where the need is less. The central government grant was the mechanism by which this mismatch was addressed. By removing it, central Conservative government is deliberately removing most funding from the areas that need it most (and which don’t tend to elect Conservative councils) and softening the blow to areas with less demand (which tend to elect Conservative councils). That’s not an accident, which is why it’s ironic that the first council to fail under the new regime was Conservative run Northhamptonshire.
Let’s talk about all the good things…
So, on the face of it, you’d expect it to be a bad thing to be living under a Labour council: Labour councils have been hit hardest so they’ll be passing on the worst cuts to services, right? Wrong. Reading’s Labour council have been forced to cut services: you don’t lose £58million pounds a year – 40% of the council’s income – without cutting services, but Reading Labour have taken a people-centred approach. At first they protected frontline services: the childrens’ centres, the libraries, the parks: the stuff we need and the stuff we like went virtually untouched. Instead, they looked inwards: made those ‘efficiency savings’ that David Cameron was so keen on. Procurement was analysed, value for money was key, and they did discover that there were more cost-effective ways of doing some things. Council staff (already doing tough jobs, on pay that doesn’t neccesarily take into account the cost of living so close to London) were encouraged to work smarter at first, then had to work harder as vacant roles were not filled and staff left without being replaced. Most of those council staff are also Reading residents and service users so they understood the challenge faced by the council and we can all be proud of them for playing their part in mitigating the damage caused by the cuts.
Eventually, though, every possible back office saving had been made and the cuts to council funding didn’t just continue, they became even more severe. Services were going to have to be affected. Reading Labour’s Councillors weren’t going to cut service provision without a fight, though. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat administration of 2010/2011 (back when the council still received a £58 million annual subsidy from the government) voted to introduce an annual charge to residents for collecting the contents of their green (garden waste) bins. Labour regained control in 2011 and cancelled the charge before it had been brought into effect. Despite Labour’s deep-felt objections eventually Labour councillors had to consent to charging for some discretionary services in order to protect others, such as re-introducing the Tories’ green bin charge and charging for a household’s first parking permit (although Reading’s charge is still one of the lowest in the South East). They also reviewed and reshuffled services. Savings were made in the Children’s centre budget by shifting from a system where each centre had its own management to a system of hubs with management staff overseeing satellites. The council ceased delivering services out of Emmer Green and Hamilton Road but managed to preserve a service in all four quarters of the town: no mean feat when you consider that the educational charity The Sutton Trust recently reported that 1,000 Children’s centres have closed since 2009.
Reading’s libraries have had their opening hours reduced but they have stayed open, with professional staff. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy says that 449 libraries have closed since 2012. Many that are still open are run by volunteers, or operate with no staff at all. When Reading’s Labour council reviewed library services they didn’t just look at how well-used each library was, they also looked at how needed it was and took the view that lesser-used libraries in less affluent areas were just as valuable as those in Reading’s leafy suburbs. Contrast that with the library consultation by Swindon’s Conservative Council: Out of 15 libraries in Swindon only five now have paid staff, and those have had their hours reduced. The other ten have been handed over to community volunteers or closed. That means that affluent areas, where families can afford to have one non-working parent, or where people have been well-paid enough to be able to retire on a comfortable pension whilst they are still in good health, still have a library. Areas where people work long hours for low pay and who only retire when they can no longer work, or where people are on benefits and looking for work so are unable commit to regular volunteering for fear of missing out on paid work, do not. It’s not just libraries: in Ceredigion the Plaid Cymru administration no longer pays for the upkeep of parks. They have handed them over to voluntary groups or closed them. Guess which areas of Ceredigion still have playgrounds and guess which areas don’t.
So Reading residents have been hit harder by the cuts, but their Labour council has shielded them from the swingeing loss of services that other councils have inflicted.
…and the bad things that we see,
There have been missteps along the way. Remember that the first thing Labour councillors did was to implement David Cameron’s back office efficiency savings? Not all those savings turned out to be efficient in the end. The finance department started to struggle, causing a delay in the auditing of the council’s annual accounts. The Children’s Services department saw a high turnover of staff, contributing to an Inadequate Ofsted report. Not good situations, but also situations that came about because dedicated people were trying to preserve frontline services. Ironically, if the seven figure sum the government is willing to spend to set up an independent company had been available to the council’s children’s services department it might have avoided the disappointing Ofsted in the first place.
There’s a cumulative effect to the cuts: the cost of austerity. Take potholes, for example: for 2017/18 RBC received £97,000 from central government to fix potholes, £37,000 more than the year before. Sounds great, doesn’t it? A good news story… until you look back at other years. in 2014/15, RBC received a £238,000 pothole grant. Successive underfunding since then means that only the worst potholes can be fixed, which means that more cars are getting damaged which means that more money is being paid out from the pothole fund in compensation which means only the worst potholes can be fixed…
The same thing is happening in other services. I work for a family support charity that used to have council finding for its early help services. The council can no longer afford to fund this so we have had to find alternative funders, which has affected the services we offer. Across Reading the services for families who are not in crisis but do need help have reduced, which means that families who would in the past have received some short-term TLC and got back on their feet are now left to struggle on alone until they tip over into crisis. The higher numbers of families in crisis who must receive expensive help reduces the overall budget for services further, reducing the money for early help: another vicious circle.
Lets talk about cuts
It is the role of an opposition to oppose. I attend council meetings and watch the websites and if you do that it is obvious that Reading’s opposition parties cannot come up with a better way of coping with the cumulatively horrendous underfunding of RBC than the approach taken by the Labour administration. The Conservatives either vote with the Labour Group or challenge cuts without explaining what they would cut instead. In the 2018 budget setting meeting Conservative councillors argued passionately against cutting CCTV provision in the centre and grit bins: I’m sure this was a genuine concern and not a stunt occasioned by the fact that the first flakes of SNOWGEDDON were falling outside. They had no concrete proposals for how these services would be funded. Cllr Rob White, leader of the Greens, is well known for using that tactic so he brought to the meeting what he claimed was a fully costed proposal: stop using agency staff and therefore save £200,000 that could be used to prevent cuts to library services… except he ignored the fact that RBC is already trying to reduce its dependence on agency staff but struggling to recruit permanent staff because it’s hard to live in an expensive town like Reading on a council salary. Where would Rob’s permanent staff come from? What would happen to the people depending on services provided by agency staff in the meantime? Boring, technical, important questions that Rob did not concern himself with. Then there’s the Lib Dems, who don’t seem much bothered about what happens in the rest of the town as long as Tilehurst’s ok, which is nice if you live in Tilehurst.
So I’ve been looking at the leaflets that have come through my door this election cycle, seeing how the other parties plan to balance the books in these dark times for local government. A good idea is a good idea no matter where it comes from. If working with other parties will keep our roads smooth and our children well-cared for then bring it on. Sadly, they have not been inspiring. My Conservative candidate wants to cancel the green bin charge (first imposed by the Tories, when we were £58m pa better off, remember) and resurface lots of roads: both of which are great things to do but – no word on how it will be funded. If cutting the green bin charge means I lose my library then no thank you please take my fifty pounds.
The Lib Dems say they are going to prevent all library cuts although as the library they show in the Caversham leaflet is Tilehurst Library and the cuts to Tilehurst Library were the only ones they protested against in the meeting where service reductions were discussed I had to read it a couple of times to check whether they’re against cuts to all libraries or all cuts to Tilehurst library but. Again, the Lib Dems say nothing about what they’re going to cut instead.
The Greens haven’t bothered to deliver any literature here so I don’t know what they’re proposing, but judging by their record in council meetings they too will have promises with no costing behind it.
So what’s a voter to do? Do you put your faith in empty promises? Or do you go with Reading Labour, a party that has demonstrated, in the face of cuts so harsh that other councils are decimating services or even failing altogether, that they won’t promise what they can’t deliver, but will do their best to protect the services we all value?
I know what I’m going to do.