Under this administration, as under the last, cuts to council and public service budgets are imposed with the almost unstoppable logic of austerity.
In these difficult times, the need to get national debt down by shrinking expenditure is the only reason in town worthy of consideration in public policy. Or so it seems.
The logic of austerity was deployed again last week to justify a flat-rate cut of 6.2% to all councils’ public health budgets.
“Difficult decisions need to be made right across government to reduce the deficit,” reasoned the Department of Health.
Under DH proposals, released almost two months after the reduction was announced, the cut will be applied to every authority equally.
While more sophisticated but arguably fairer means of applying the reduction were floated, officials clearly favour the simplest approach: an across-the-board cut.
Going down this easiest of roads offers “certainty”, allowing authorities to act “quickly”, the DH argues.
This is austerity in its crudest form and it’s something council leaders and senior officers have been forced to put up with for too long.
Cuts for any purpose, austerity included, should be carefully and thoughtfully applied if unnecessary harm is to be avoided.
Pushing out a consultation paper in the summer, nigh on two months after a cut is announced, falls far short of this goal.
As with other austerity cuts, council chief executives, councillors and now their public health directors will have little choice but to enforce this Whitehall directive.
Senior officers will soon, however, have a new and potentially powerful weapon at their disposal to fight the imposition of such poorly administered policies.
The code of ethics drawn up by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers offers a unified set of standards to which its members must stick.
Adherents will be expected to “speak truth to power”, act in the public interest and put their residents first.
As devolution loads extra responsibility onto council officers’ shoulders, the code will supply much-needed and recognisable reasons to challenge the dominant logic of austerity.
Acting in the public interest might require that cuts are not applied quickly when a fairer, less harmful method can be found in timely fashion.
Putting residents first might sometimes warrant extra expenditure in order to cut costs long-term, in the manner of the much lauded troubled families project.
But perhaps the most powerful part of the code is the ethical obligation to speak truth to power.
Council officers should see this as an official warrant to challenge the morally questionable decisions of national and local politicians and officials.
It’s a much needed foil against the logic of austerity, especially when this is crudely applied.
- The next print issue of LGC will be on 20 August. Check LGCplus.com for daily news, comment and analysis.