It is difficult to be certain about the strategy being adopted by city councillors in Birmingham to deliver £330 million of Government spending cuts, since communication on this vitally important issue has been noticeable only by its absence.
Of course it is essential that leaders of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition have the space to debate privately the options available – many of which will be unpalatable – before sharing their decisions with citizens.
But the lack of any meaningful information as to how our political leaders are approaching the toughest budget settlement in decades does not bode well, particularly since the deadline for final decisions is now less than three months away.
Any prospect of meaningful consultation appears to have been ditched long ago. Councillors debate issues in closed-door sessions, while the leader of the city council says nothing in public about the inevitable impact on service delivery that the cuts are bound to have.
In Birmingham, unusually, an unelected civil servant has been making most of the running by setting out a possible agenda for meeting Government requirements to cut the council’s revenue budget by getting on for a third. Stephen Hughes, the chief executive, has been busy for two or three months briefing organisations about the need to think radically and putting forward his view that local councils must revert to their Victorian roots of small government if they are to continue to provide a small number of essential services.
His argument against the traditional “salami slicing” approach to cutting expenditure is highly plausible.
Mr Hughes has been at pains to point out, correctly, that the scale of savings required makes it inadvisable simply to cut each departmental budget by a standard percentage. The problem with the Hughes approach, which is why it has been resisted by councils over the years, is that it relies on some parts of a public body suffering disproportionally large cuts so that other parts of the organisation can be saved.
Such an approach involves more than a little in the way of selfless behaviour and sacrifice from politicians in charge of less fashionable portfolios like, say, leisure, so that more money may be available for housing, schools and social services.
It would appear, from unattributable briefings by politicians, that Mr Hughes has had his wrists slapped and told in no uncertain terms to stop being so radical. As one, unnamed, cabinet member put it: “We had to remind him that we run the council, we face the voters, not him.”
That is indeed true. Elected politicians run Birmingham City Council, or at least are supposed to, not unelected bureaucrats. And if the cabinet wants to tell Mr Hughes thanks but no thanks, it has every right to do so – preferably in public by councillors with the guts to put their names to the comments they make.
By pursuing a large number of smaller cuts rather than a small number of larger cuts the coalition no doubt hopes it can spread the misery as thinly as possible yet still deliver £330 million of savings over four years.
But if Mr Hughes is right, this strategy will not work because it cannot possibly achieve the scale of cuts required in the timescale demanded. Political expediency and councillors looking to save their own skins will have triumphed in Birmingham, and not for the first time.