If Brexit feels like a perpetual exercise in banging your head against a wall, spare a thought for those of us who have spent nearly ten years making the same point about the least glamorous political topic of all – local government.
Since 2010, local political reporters like me have spent each January or February traipsing into town halls for the annual budget cuts briefing, an event only ever livened up by things being just that bit worse than the year before.
Local government has been the ultimate soft target for austerity. A minister looking to make massive savings could do so safe in the knowledge that most people will blame the council and not Westminster when their bins don’t get collected. Most won’t notice social care cuts, and many regard their town hall as a dusty collection of incompetents, if they regard them at all.
Ministers such as former communities secretary Eric Pickles knew this very clearly. For nearly a decade, councils have been told to shut up and raid reserves, shut up and sell something off, shut up and make unidentified “back office savings”.
(Early on, Pickles issued a list of “sensible savings” suggestions. These included “open a pop-up shop”. Some of the others were indeed sensible enough, to be fair, in a sector that was overdue a spring clean. But that was nine years ago.)
The upshot is that, depending on how you measure it, local government in this country has lost nearly 50 per cent of its funding since 2010, according to the National Audit Office; or 77p in the pound by 2020, according to the Local Government Association.
Either way, it has been hammered. But it hasn’t been hammered evenly.
While government has never – to my knowledge – admitted this, there has also been a deliberate strategy to shift resources from one place to another over the last nine years; one that generally has cash moved north to south, Labour to Conservative.
There is no other way to explain those heat maps: the ones that show in dark red the places to have lost the most cash – hundreds of pounds per head in the Salfords and Liverpools and Rochdales – versus the dark blue Oxfords and Surreys that have managed to gain. Salford lost £650 per person, according to research by Centre for Cities released earlier this year. Oxford gained £115.
These figures stem in part from which councils relied most heavily on grant funding, and so have had the most to lose when it’s cut. Salford faced a triple whammy. It was poorer to begin with. It’s less able to raise cash from council tax to fill the funding gap, because it was poorer to begin with. And it has been hit harder by the broader effects of austerity – benefits freezes, rising crime, kids ending up in care, homelessness – because… you get the picture.
Councils across Greater Manchester are seeing the same trends across the piece. Our homelessness crisis is well documented, but social services departments are also on their knees, unable to find care home places for soaring numbers of children coming into the system, able only to turn to an over-saturated north west market that has it over a barrel. They are facing a black hole of tens of millions of pounds as a result.
In Manchester, the council is now raiding reserves to pay for basic services.
Like the National Audit Office, it warns that this isn’t sustainable, or sensible.
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, has noted that not only is this a moral question where vulnerable kids are concerned, it’s also financially daft: spend on children’s services hasn’t actually fallen in the last ten years. The cash is simply going on the more expensive, crisis end of the process, helping fewer kids, but for the same cost.
In local election season, of course, leaflets don’t feature messages about the complexities of the care home market. The Conservative Party local election video, launched earlier this week, is wall-to-wall bins.
That’s what people think of when they think of the council. It makes sense, for now.
It’s also doubtless why they’re planning to scrap deprivation as a factor in local government funding altogether from 2020. In Labour areas where most people already don’t vote, the political cost will look pretty cheap.
But the human cost isn’t. The government is creating a future deficit, too, as more and more intractable social problems fester for the next generation of politicians to solve.
And, as the rage of the Brexit vote – and, now, the Brexit crisis – shows, eventually the political cost catches up with you too.