Alex Massie

Cuts? What Cuts?

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Government wants to steal milk from children! Coalition wants to ban playgrounds! When-oh-when will the government call off its War on Kids? Well, that's been the hysterical tone of much of the coverage in recent days. Even allowing for the feather-headed excesses of August this is becoming silly.

No-one disputes that there will be some difficult decisions to be made in the comprehensive spending review this autumn. But while the coalition is still in the business of softening up the public for leaner times ahead there will come a point when ministers will have to fight back, pointing out that despite everything public spending is still rising. (Whether you think this a good thing is, for now, a dfferent matter.) As Guido says, Kirsty Wark seemed surprised when John Redwood pointed this out last night.

Nevertheless it is true. Public spending will increase from £600bn to roughly £700bn over the course of this parliament. That's a much slower rate of increase than we've endured these past ten years but a 15% increase over five years is still, stubbornly, an increase. Indeed, given the nature of the times, your man on the Clapham Omnibus might think 15% over five years a reasonable pay settlement.(Although, clearly, inflation eats into this.)

Granted, protecting the NHS budget and so on means that there will be tougher spending rounds elsewhere and granted too experience demonstrates that simply holding spending at current levels (in real terms) is also exceedingly difficult. But there is a considerable difference between keeping spending steady and slashing it just there's a noted difference between a hiring freeze and compulsory redundancies. 

Which brings one to the matter of children's playgrounds. As Iain Martin demonstrates the scaremongering about this is becoming ridiculous. All that has happened is that £235m of spending on new swings and roundabouts has been cancelled. A failure to spend as much in the future as you had once planned is not a cut in existing provision. But to listen to some of the nonsense swirling about this you'd think the government was proposing a Greater Stornoway policy and planning to tie up swings across the country.

In any case - and here we touch on a still larger issue - why on earth is central government allocating money for new swings and slides anyway? Why should taxpayers in Hull be helping to pay for new playgrounds in Harrow? (And vice versa). If Harrow want to build new playgrounds then let them do so and find the money from their own funds.

This then is a small but telling indicator of how absurdly centralised Britain has become (and Tory governments must take some of the blame for this too). What ought, by any reasonable measure, be a matter for local councils has somehow been taken over by central government. Reversing this culture is one of the government's greatest challenges.

Which in turn means that, again, any real localist agenda must eventually address the question of local government financing. At present, to remind you once again, councils receive 85% of their funds from central government. A question for Eric Pickles and his pals: what should that percentage be at the end of this parliament?

Alas, the auguries are not encouraging. Council Tax may be unpopular but until councils raise more of their own money and become less dependent upon central government then real local accountability, to say nothing about addressing real local priorities, will remain a distant prospect. Local taxes should be higher and central taxes lower. Until that happens - until people start demanding more from their locally elected officials - then the notion that central government must always provide will endure unchallenged. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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