In the most significant sign yet of grass-roots discontent with the coalition, 88 Liberal Democrat council chiefs have written to the Times (£) to criticise the scale and pace of cuts.
The 17 local authority leaders and 71 local party heads – including the leaders of Newcastle, Milton Keynes and Hull City Councils – warn that services for the most vulnerable will have to be cut. While accepting the need for local councils to play their part in reducing the deficit, they say that spending reductions are too big and being implemented too quickly. They also personally attack the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, for “shak[ing] a stick at councillors” rather than working with them.
Rather than assist the country’s recovery by making public-sector savings in a way that can protect local economies and the front line, the cuts are so structured that they will do the opposite . . .
This front-loading means councils do not have the lead-in time necessary to re-engineer services on a lower-cost base and ease staff cuts without forced, expensive redundancies. Inexplicably, local government is also being denied the opportunity to spread the cost of reorganisation and downsizing over several years – at no cost to central government – which just makes even bigger in-year cuts inevitable.
This intervention is a serious blow to the unity of the coalition, and is particularly significant because the Liberal Democrats are, and have always been, a party of local government. Such an unequivocal statement of discontent shows that loyalty to the leadership is stretched to its very limit.
Indeed, while the localism agenda appears at first glance to be an area of concordance between the two coalition parties, this incident points to a key difference: the Lib Dems favour local government as a means of delivering this, but Cameron’s Conservatives would rather diminish councils in favour of non-state voluntary groups. However, as the outcry in the last week has demonstrated, there is a contradiction inherent in the Tories’ view of this, as much of the funding for the charities they would like to expand comes from grants from local councils.
Meanwhile, an in-depth survey of the largest local authorities (also in the Times) suggests that at least 140,000 council jobs will be lost as a result of the cuts, and that the elderly, mentally ill and disabled will be hit hardest.
Elsewhere, the BBC’s Mark Easton shows that the more deprived an area, the bigger the proportionate cut in its budget:
Every voter in Labour-controlled Hackney [will] lose £210.19 in “spending power” as a result of the cuts (8.8% reduction), while their equivalent in Conservative-controlled East Dorset is losing £2.86 (roughly 2%).
These Lib Dem councillors were right to speak out against this assault on local government; now we must hope that someone in central government is listening.