The cuts cont...

Cuts and austerity are so common in the UK now we rarely see them make big headlines. Some people –particularly those living in the South- even appear to think the cuts are over. This week our council started a public consultation about the next round of cuts in which they have to save £90m. Part of this involves a Budget Simulator application on their website in which members of the public can attempt to balance the budget by making cuts across all of the council’s services. This exercise definitely brings home the stark choices that remain after all the so called `fat` has been cut. The fact is that our city’s council tax only accounts for 11% of the council’s budget because most properties are in lower council tax bands. 72% of the council’s budget comes from central government and 58% of that has been cut over the past six years. These new cuts are on top of that. So I had a go at the simulator to see exactly what cuts would be needed to balance the books.

The simulator itself is not entirely how a council would go about this exercise and deals in broad terms enabling only reductions of 5, 10, 25 or 50% in each area. Obviously in real life budgeting would be more precise. The survey does not include options to share services with other local councils, how the impending regional mayoral elections would change things or any selling of land. The other thing is that it lacks the sort of forensic detail about each service which a council would have at their disposal to help them make these decisions. Even so the results are harrowing.
Its just not possible to avoid cuts in any area and in some quite large reductions do not make a big difference in the total. It is an unfortunate fact that all the biggest budgets are in the areas most needed which you’d expect like children’s and adults social care, roads maintenance and health. Yet you also have areas that perhaps seem less of a priority but which can lead to greater investment in the city therefore helping in the longer term. To make cuts the `best` way is to consider those areas where the facilities could be privately provided against those in which a council has a legal responsibility or else nobody in the private sector would be interested in matters that do not offer a profit.
I did balance the budget in the end by cutting the required £90m. In doing so I closed every library except the main one, left only three sports centres open, added the full 10% council tax rise and even reduced social care budgets by 10%. I left some parks unmaintained, more potholes unfixed and regular bin collections reduced. Of course nobody except perhaps the most extreme Tory would really choose to do any of these things but having to make the choices within such limitations is certainly a challenge. To have to do so in real life must be horrendous.
In the end these cuts will increasingly come back to bite out society as a whole. Increased poverty and homelessness, additional burdens on an already stretched NHS, people having to pay for services that have always been free to use. These and other results cannot be good in a time when job availability is shrinking due to technology and the economic framework we rely on is looking increasingly flimsy. The government’s mantra of `value for money`, `balancing the books` and `reducing the surplus` just means they (ie we) will end up having to pick up the bill in another way. We’ll all be poorer and not just in financial terms.
Before you ask I don’t have an easy answer because there isn’t one but the present mechanism is not working leaving local councils taking the blame for national decisions in which they have no say.

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