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17 February 2016

David Cameron’s fiscal gerrymandering would make Robert Mugabe wince

What the government is doing to cities like mine is worse than a joke, says Joe Anderson.

By Joe Anderson Joe Anderson

It’s little wonder government ministers have stopped claiming “we’re all in it together” given the scandal of the iniquitous local government relief settlement they have just announced.

Four-fifths of a new £300 million pot, earmarked to assist councils facing budget cuts, is heading straight into the coffers of Conservative county councils. There is not even any pretence at this inherent unfairness. It is what it is: brazen financial gerrymandering. It’s enough to make Robert Mugabe wince.

After all, just follow the money. The biggest beneficiary of this “transitional relief” scheme will be Surrey County Council, which will receive £24m. Hampshire gets £19m, Hertfordshire £16m, £14m goes to Essex, £12m to West Sussex, £11m to Kent and £9m to Buckinghamshire.

Notice a pattern? The Conservative shires are being showered with the Prime Minister’s largesse. Indeed, Cameron’s own county council in Oxfordshire will get an additional £9m – to ease the pressure of cuts from his own ministers.

But this generosity comes at the expense of other – more needy – parts of the country. In fact, the five most deprived councils in the land – Middlesbrough, Knowsley, Hull, Liverpool and Manchester – will receive nothing under the grant. Yet the five least deprived – Hart, Wokingham, Chiltern, Waverley, Elmbridge – will collectively receive £5.3m.

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All fair-minded people would recognise that funding for local authorities should reflect genuine need. Money should head to the hardest-hit authorities, with the biggest social and economic challenges.

Since 2011, Liverpool has lost 58 per cent of its annual budget – some £330m. But instead of helping us grow and diversify our economy and protect the most vulnerable, ministers seem more concerned about buying off their backbenchers and delighting their grassroots by looking after their own.

But it’s not just that leafy Tory towns get bought off with a political bung, they are also in a much better position to raise their own money.

Take Surrey County Council for example – a richer authority with less pressure on health, housing and adult social care services than the one I lead. The council generates £586m in council tax revenue, compared with just £130m in Liverpool. Grant cuts there don’t hit anywhere near as hard as they do to us.

There was a time when David Cameron was concerned ‘detoxifying’ the Conservatives and positioning his party on the centre-ground of British politics. Now he is content to circle his wagons around the south of England.

“All in it together?” Don’t make me laugh.