Where ever I go it’s a chapter of woe. In the last few days I’ve been to Winsford, Manchester and Liverpool to witness councils struggling to fix next month’s annual budget against a background of swingeing cuts.
The problem with this story is that I’ve been covering this sort of issue for forty years. Councils complaining that these are the worst cuts ever and forecasting doom and gloom for the services people need. This time I don’t think they are crying wolf. The scale of the cuts means that they are having to completely rethink the way they provide services.
With health authorities, the police and fire service also facing the same pressure; there is a willingness for them all to get out of their “silos” and talk together about providing us with a joined up service. This may be the only good thing to come from the government’s squeeze on the Town Halls. It was a point I put to Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese. He had been explaining to a conference in Manchester that “troubled families” often had thirteen different people contacting them in the past. Now management restructuring and greater cooperation with other agencies would mean one person would be put in charge of a case.
It begged the question why hadn’t it been done before? His reply was revealing. Until now public sector bodies had been reluctant to cooperate. The budget pressures facing them all had changed that.
So credit Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles with one point, but little else. The man is a disgrace. The relish with which he is stripping councils of millions of pounds and suggesting that savings on providing mineral water at meetings will solve the problem is fatuous. His attack on authorities like Manchester for holding £120m in reserves is frankly dishonest. He knows that this money cannot be spent on the revenue budget.
Things are so bad in Liverpool that Mayor Joe Anderson has called for divine inspiration. This week he hosted a summit with the Bishop of Liverpool to protest at government demands that the city reduce its spending by 52% over four years. Mayor Joe has been attacked for forecasting civil unrest if this goes on. The criticism is probably right because the last thing his city needs is rioting but there is a burning sense of injustice among civic leaders from Liverpool to Leeds that the local government financial settlement appears to favour southern councils at the expense of the north.
Be that as it may, new thinking is required. Cheshire West and Chester Council saw this crisis coming and on Wednesday night in Winsford they began a series of public consultation meetings (which I am chairing) on their budget plans. They include their “Altogether Better” programme which aims to reduce duplication between agencies operating in their patch.
Apart from the general cuts, Wirral Council has suffered historic internal management failures not helped by political instability. There is a proposal on the table to scrap the election of a third of councillors every year and go for an all out election every four years. Sources indicate it may not be approved which is a shame. It would end the confusing system that applies across the metropolitan areas of West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. It would be better if Leeds, Bury, Wirral etc. had one big election every four years when the future control of the council would be at stake. It would also save money for other services which is what this crisis is all about.