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Councils of despair

Local authorities are slashing vital services, but keeping extravagant offices and salaries – and handing blame back to David Cameron

12 February 2011

12:00 AM

12 February 2011

12:00 AM

Local authorities are slashing vital services, but keeping extravagant offices and salaries – and handing blame back to David Cameron

We are, of course, all in this together. It is just that an awful lot of people feel that they are rather further in it than anyone else, and believe that while they are drowning in the deep end they can see David Cameron happily splashing about in his Gucci shorts in the shallows.

I certainly felt that way when I read through Cambridgeshire County Council’s new budget and realised that my daughter’s transport to school has been selected for the chop. Like many disabled children, she has a long daily journey to a special school which is far removed from where we live. The nearest special school — built on a cheap edge-of-village greenfield site so that the sites of the two Cambridge schools which preceded it could be sold to developers — is half an hour’s drive away. That is not such a problem if, as at present, the council’s education department runs minibuses to pick up the children. But the council is pressing parents to walk or drive their children to school instead — for some families in our area who are already at breaking point it would mean two hours driving every day.

The Prime Minister and his aides may or may not be interested in any of this, but they should certainly be interested in my initial reaction. It was, to put it bluntly: ‘Bloody David Cameron — did he not stand up in one of the general election debates, talk about his late son Ivan, and tell us he understood the pressures of bringing up a disabled child and promise extra help? So how come less than a year later we are losing our children’s home-to-school transport?’

Riven Vincent seems to have felt exactly the same. She is the mother who a fortnight ago said she was considering putting her six-year-old quadriplegic daughter Celyn into care. Celyn requires 24-hour-a-day care, but Mrs Vincent was being told to make do with six hours of respite care a week, and could no longer cope. Rather than attack her local council in South Gloucestershire, which made the decision (in fairness it has to be said that many councils are a lot more generous on respite care than this), she chose to lambast the Prime Minister. Writing a post on Mumsnet she accused him of going back on the promise she says that he made her during the election campaign, that if he became prime minister he ‘wouldn’t do anything that would hurt disabled children’. Her post, in which she added, ‘He says he understands more than most but not everyone is a millionaire politician who can afford two nannies’, attracted over 100 messages of support.

David Cameron seemed stunned by the attack, replying through a spokesman that he was ‘clearly concerned’ and would be asking the local MP to take it up with the council. He appeared to feel the matter was little to do with him, and in a sense he is right: individual decisions over children’s services come under the remit of county councils, London boroughs or unitary authorities, depending on the area. He perhaps thought — logically — that it would be hypocritical for him to preach localism only then to intervene in individual decisions. Nevertheless, one imagines that Blair — or even Gordon Brown, if he could have avoided mouthing something rude about Ms Vincent as soon as he thought his microphone had been removed — would have made more of it and come off better as a result. Blair, in particular, would have had Ms Vincent and her daughter up in Downing Street in an instant, with an army of carers and TV cameramen on hand. Simultaneously he would have dressed down South Gloucestershire Council in public for not giving her what she needed.

The incident exposes a horrible political problem for the government. The Comprehensive Spending Review has forced large cuts upon councils, but the government has done nothing to ensure that councils cut the right things — the extravagant salaries, the junkets and the pointless bureaucracy — while protecting the public services that taxpayers genuinely value. There is much evidence that exactly the opposite is happening. Yet voters are inclined to blame the government for lost services, not their councils.

Ms Vincent could, for example, have set the wrath of Mumsnet on South Gloucestershire’s chief executive, Amanda Deeks. Ms Deeks is not as important as David Cameron, but she is paid more — £186,590 a year, to be precise. If she took a pay cut so that she was paid the same as the Prime Minister it would free up enough money to give Ms Vincent and 10 other families an extra six hours of respite care a week. Had South Gloucestershire installed a little less eco-bling in its new £31 million office in Yate, it could have provided vastly more. Nevertheless, Ms Vincent went for David Cameron’s jugular. In many people’s minds these are already the ‘coalition cuts’, and no amount of localism is going to make them question whether councils have the right priorities in targeting their reduced budgets.

There is probably no need for councils to wage a propaganda war to ensure that blame for the cuts falls upon the coalition. But the London borough of Newham has launched one nonetheless. Besides spitting vitriol about coalition cuts in its in-house magazine (which costs £547,000 a year to produce), the borough’s £81,000-a-year elected mayor Sir Robin Wales (who rules in tandem with the borough’s £241,000-a-year chief executive) has made a video moaning about the unfairness of his reduced budget. The video holds forth about the great achievements of the council — omitting, for some reason, any mention of the £111 million that the council has just spent buying and fitting out its own spanking new waterside HQ. It is so luxurious — with designer lights costing £1,800 each — that it won an award from the British Council for Offices, beating any bank headquarters. But the cost of this temple of extravagance has nothing to do with your child’s playgroup or your meal-on-wheels being cancelled, of course — that is all the government’s fault.

It is the same all over Britain: old people and disabled children are getting it in the neck while council flunkeys carry on living the high life. At one school in Gosport, 19 staff are to lose their jobs, some working with children with learning difficulties, while the borough council has just sent four councillors on a junket to Spain to visit a potential bidder for the town’s waste services. The council argued that they needed to check out the company — but that hardly required a trip to Spain, given that it has a British subsidiary with offices on the Isle of Wight. Renfrewshire is closing community halls but spent £15,000 hiring an X Factor singer to switch on its Christmas lights. While chopping transport for special-needs children, Cambridgeshire County Council has just splurged £181 million on a guided busway which has yet to carry its first passenger, two years after it was due to open.

This is not, by the way, a political attack on Labour: there are plenty of loony-right and loony-centre councils. One of the former is the Conservative-controlled Barnet, which revealed last week that it was thinking of doing away with school crossing patrols — this from a council which voted last year to increase its leader’s allowance by 55 per cent to £54,000. West Sussex Council has also proposed cutting its lollipop ladies, who earn £6.57 to £6.91 an hour; its chief executive took a 12 per cent pay rise in 2008/09, to £218,000 a year.

In preaching localism the government has made a similar miscalculation to the one that Mrs Thatcher made over the poll tax. The whole point of that tax was that it was supposed to increase local accountability. If residents received high bills, went the th
eory, they would punish their councils by voting them out of office. But instead the populace headed down to Whitehall and took it out on the government. Something similar is happening now: which local services get cut and which do not is supposed to be a matter between us and our local council. But instead, if we don’t like the result, we just blame the government.

Earlier in the 1980s Mrs Thatcher had taken a very different approach: she had sought directly to intervene in council overspending by capping the rates. She positioned herself, in effect, as the defender of the people against town hall extravagance. She never lost any popularity for that, save for in the town halls themselves. David Cameron needs to do something similar: rather than talk about localism he needs to lay down the law and stop frontline services being cut. It turns out that even the £800 million which Cameron pledged for short breaks for the carers of disabled children is not ring-fenced. It could, in other words, end up kitting out a chief executive’s office with plasma screens and the government could not do a thing about it.

I can see that too much localism could spell doom for the coalition. If David Cameron doesn’t want to be blamed for the loss of valued public services he needs to assume powers to veto the worst decisions. Given that councils receive most of their income from central government grants, why shouldn’t some of the money be ring-fenced for particular services? Doling out money with no requirement as to how it is spent is asking for trouble. A more sensible approach would be for the government to say to councils: how you spend that element of your income which comes from council tax is a matter between you and your council taxpayers; but as for our grants, they must be spent on the services that we specify.

Rather than just barking at overpaid council chiefs — as Grant Shapps did over Barnet when councillors voted to increase their allowances last July — why not a slip a clause in the Localism Bill that gives the government powers to cap the pay and allowances of senior council staff at a rate equivalent to a Cabinet minister’s salary of £134,565? It would hardly be a vote-loser, even if it didn’t strictly fit in with the theme of devolving power from Whitehall.

Town hall chiefs may be earning more than David Cameron does, but that is no reason to fall at their feet. On the contrary, the inflated salaries are evidence of at what level of government the worst waste and extravagance really lies.

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