This is the next of our posts with Reform looking ahead to the Spending Review.
Earlier posts were on health, education, the first hundred days, welfare, the Civil Service, international experiences (New Zealand, Canada, Ireland), Hon Ruth Richardson’s recent speech, selling the case for cuts to the public and how to deliver retrenchment.
(And the next subject, defence expenditure, can be found
The debate over spending cuts was taken out of Westminster to the ex-mining constituency of Cannock Chase, Staffordshire on Friday. For “Can Cannock Cope? Showcasing local champions and
public sector reform in Cannock Chase”, Reform assembled heads of local public services and business leaders in front of an audience of 100 Cannock residents.
Still recovering from the collapse of the mining industry thirty years ago, and the 22 percent unemployment that quickly followed, Cannock Chase represents the type of area that must rethink public
services radically if it is to cope with the forthcoming cuts. Although public spending has nearly doubled in most spending areas since 2003-04, Cannock still suffers from high and increasing rates
of worklessness, poor educational outcomes and the worst health profile in its Primary Care Trust district. Moreover, the area’s low-value, unskilled employment base and poor transport
infrastructure have led to business enterprise rates of just 3.6 per cent, less than half the 8 per cent national average, and average weekly earnings are £60 less than national
Local public service leaders agreed that spending cuts were inevitable. But there was nothing resembling a debate on where the axe should fall and how to deliver value for money in health,
education or policing. Stephen Brown, Chief Executive of Cannock Chase District Council, told the audience, “we are all up for doing more for less”, but was unable to give any detail of
where savings could be made aside from citizens’ advice and leisure services. Similarly, Philip Atkins, Leader of Staffordshire County Council, spoke of “a brave new world” of
“working together”, but refrained from setting out where the Council’s planned £136 million savings will fall next year. Even Douglas Paxton, Deputy Chief Constable for
Staffordshire – consistently rated as one of the most efficient forces in the country - assured the audience that Staffordshire police will find 25 percent cuts without reducing police
officer numbers, despite the fact that (as he said) 85 percent of its budget is spent on salaries.
The assembled local residents shared the panel’s lack of awareness of how impending cuts will affect their lives. “I don’t mind change as long as it’s the right
change,” stated one audience member, “and I don’t mind cuts as long as they are in the right places”. But where, in Cannock, are the “right places”? Nobody in
the room seemed sure. There was, as Julian Glover of The Guardian put it in an article
today, an “anaesthetised acceptance of impending pain” and very few ideas of how Cannock could cope. Sheila Brown, who founded the Newlife Foundation for Disabled Children in Cannock
and turned it into a national success story, garnered the biggest cheer when she argued that “we have to cope, and we’ll cope a lot better if we work together and we talk together as a
community”. As Sheila argued, “we need to re-establish who is truly vulnerable”, even if that means cutting benefits and services for those that don’t need them, as
“we can’t keep doing everything we are doing now”.
Ultimately, the value of the event was in its convening power. A number of local residents said that they found their local representatives inaccessible, and had certainly never had the chance to
question them at a public meeting. Some of the local leaders had never met before. It was worthwhile that the discussion came to focus on collaboration - opening lines of communication between
leaders and the public, and among leaders themselves. The Government may hope that the 20 October announcement will put an end to the cuts issue but in fact the debate over the Spending Review is
only just beginning.
Will Tanner is a researcher at Reform