It is regrettable that the leader of Birmingham City Council did not see any reason to attend a press briefing on the authority’s 2010-11 budget where he could have given political insight into plans to axe up to 2,000 jobs and reduce spending by £75 million.
Mike Whitby confined his remarks instead to a pre-prepared statement which dwelt largely on the “remarkable” achievement of a fifth successive below-inflation 1.9 per cent council tax rise delivered by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat partnership that has been running Birmingham since 2004.
It is of course very good news, particularly for pensioners and others on fixed incomes, that Birmingham has been able to keep council tax bills at historic lows, and long may this continue.
It is crystal clear, however, why Coun Whitby decided to leave detailed explanations about the budget to council chief executive Stephen Hughes and corporate resources director Paul Dransfield. He has little stomach at the best of times for owning up to bad news, and the more you probe this budget the worse it gets.
Mr Hughes and Mr Dransfield are highly-paid council officials, but they are not responsible for devising policy. That is the job of Coun Whitby and his coalition colleagues, and they are the people who must be held publicly accountable via the ballot box. Passing the buck to paid officials verges on the edge of cowardice, or perhaps blind panic.
The budget proposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is indeed tough and pulls no punches in spelling out the likely impact of government spending cuts over the next few years. If matters are anywhere near as bad as predictions by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which points to a further £115 million of cuts by 2019, the council will be getting rid of jobs at an even faster pace.
The trade unions are naturally concentrating on the fiction of the coalition’s Employee Bargain, which is supposed to offer job security to staff who are willing to move around council departments and re-train to find alternative employment.
This promise is steadily being blown apart and it is obvious that the council’s urgent need to save money to meet soaring demand for front-line social services and housing is so great that a huge redundancy programme over the next 10 years is inevitable.
Two unknown factors mean that the impact on jobs and services could be even harsher.
The first area of doubt is what Mr Hughes describes as unprecedented government spending cuts, while the second involves the council’s ability to deliver the efficiency savings already outlined.
This year’s budget had to be bailed out with one-off payments of about £40 million in order to balance the books. Promised savings from a business transformation programme are not being delivered as quickly as promised, and there are bound to be difficulties in delivering the £75 million efficiency savings pencilled in for 2010-11.
Public services in Birmingham are in for a rough ride, but you wouldn’t guess that from the council leader’s remarks.