There is a fundamental contradiction in the government’s bitter rhetoric about how they expect local services to be run.
Ministers goad councils to slash senior management, ditch chief executives and cut back on officer training. Meanwhile they accuse elected councillors of being ‘democracy dodgers’, volunteers who should have no need for pension arrangements and tin pot dictators who should not spend resources on communicating with their citizens.
This year’s budget setting process has been the most difficult and complex in modern memory, largely as a result of central government changes. Councils have had to predict business rate income and understand how many rating appeals are outstanding to be able to set a business rate tax base. They have also had to construct a legally sound local council tax reduction scheme to replace the national council tax benefit system. Preparations have had to be made for the social fund moving to council control from the Department for Work & Pensions. Both the council tax reduction and social fund schemes have received a government cut in funding - despite increasing demand.
Significant planning has had to go into the transfer of public health into councils as well as finding ways to support those affected by cuts to housing benefit, the benefit cap and the ‘bedroom tax’. All whilst trying to find yet more, huge budget savings after another cuts-driven local government finance settlement.
In Brighton & Hove City Council, both in terms of wage bill and total number, we have the lowest level of senior management in over a decade. We have risen to this year’s challenges, but been stretched in doing so. Ditching our superb team of senior officers, as ministers would have us do, would make up a fraction of the funding gap government is expecting us to fill. And it is through the efforts of our officers that we are able to develop new ways of working that will help us to stay ahead of the government’s cuts.
If any party in government is genuine about its desire to decentralise and localise then there must be recognition of councils’ needs to recruit and retain both officer and councillor talent. Councils are in a unique position to deliver creative, effective public services for their citizens. It’s a losing game for ministers to be attacking us when we need to be focussed on hiring and retaining the best and the brightest.
Jason Kitcat (Green) is leader of Brighton & Hove City Council