A couple of recent reports have painted a very bleak picture indeed for local government in general and in particular urban centres like Birmingham and the Black Country.
The major reason for this is that densely populated towns and cities tend to have higher rates of unemployment and deprivation, less stable populations and more complex social problems which need addressing – and therefore rely more heavily on grants from central government.
The National Audit Office, the UK’s official financial watchdog, concluded in its report into town hall finance that central government just doesn’t get it.
It warned that half of councils face financial ruin if cuts continue over the next five years as is currently threatened.
They will struggle even to deliver those most essential services like social care for both the elderly and children.
While emptying the bins and sweeping the streets each week will be a struggle.
A little known Government minister was trotted out to respond saying the cuts were ‘fair’ and that all parts of the public sector have to take their hit.
Meanwhile, the Birmingham Post, using Office of National Statistics and government figures, has worked out that, taking account population growth in urban areas, the cuts in Birmingham and the West Midlands metropolitan areas are in fact worse than previously thought.
We found that since 2010 there has been £253 a year less for every one of the 1.09 million people in Birmingham – with similar £200 a year drops for Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. Dudley, Solihull and Coventry fare better with per-head cuts of £75, £54 and £154 respectively.
I have been told by Birmingham council officials that the per-head loss would be even higher but for the £80 million public health budget, transferred from the NHS, which came with huge service commitments and strings attached.
There have been a clutch of other funding cuts, again linked to specific projects like wheelie bins, transport infrastructure and economic development.
A couple of years ago Birmingham’s Labour leader Sir Albert Bore perhaps jumped the gun with his dire warnings of the end of local government as well know it and arguably gave fuel to the line from Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles that despite the cuts to date and predictions of doom, the town hall system had not yet collapsed.
But with a further £400 million to come from the budget over the next four years, about £150 million of it in 2015-16, perhaps the reality will finally begin to hit home.
After four years of ‘efficiencies’ and ‘back office’ cuts it is inconceivable that any more could be taken out without impacting the front line. Even the council’s debt has been refinanced to put off higher payments for a generation.
Coun Jess Phillips, the Labour general election candidate in Yardley summed it up: “The middle management has been cut, the top management has been cut, next it’s the services and frontline staff.”
The district auditor Mark Stocks also warned of challenges ahead in his annual letter – his suggestion is to look at whether outsourcing or privatisation will help – particularly as refuse collection services seem to be less costly in other areas which have gone down that route. So far this has been ruled out by successive administrations as politically difficult.
But perhaps the biggest threat is the soaring cost of child protection – the priority service for the city.
The reforms of the crisis-hit department demanded by government commissioner Lord Warner come with a £41 million a year price tag it emerged this week.
There has also been a 50 per cent increase in child protection referrals in the last year attributed to the various agencies getting their act together after years of criticism.
Mr Stocks highlighted this as a real risk on the council books but tellingly added that as Birmingham had been, compared to other authorities, a ‘low spender’ on child protection for at least the last five years. Birmingham has, as a result, a massive shortfall in care home and foster places for children at risk and has been placing them in some particularly unpleasant B&B accommodation.
It has also emerged that this £41 million a year is unlikely to be covered by the Department for Education – meaning that further cuts will need to be made elsewhere, piling further misery on the people of Birmingham. Perhaps it is time for another trip to Whitehall with the begging bowl.
Like a phoenix from the ashes, a former Labour cabinet member dumped by the electorate earlier this year is set to make a return to the political trenches in time for the General Election.
Former Kings Norton councillor Steve Bedser takes over as regional Labour Party spin doctor after Christmas to lead their local media relations in the campaign.
So what has happened to the able Richard Costello, who has been handling the press until now? He’s taking up a post with the West Midlands Police Commissioner David Jamieson to beef up his communications operation.
The usually jovial Labour councillor Ian Cruise seems to have suffered a sense of humour failure during a snarky exchange with Liberal Democrat rivals on wheelie bin policy.
Lib Dem Mike Ward had been told of a binman on one round lifting black bags out of wheelie bins and chucking them in the wagon manually, suggesting this underlines the ridiculousness of wheelie bins.
Amid the light-hearted exchanges which followed, Coun Cruise complained about the bin operative’s flagrant disregard for the health and safety standards saying he should attach the bin to the wagon for the automatic lifter to take the strain.
Perhaps, like another of his colleagues, he should have made reference to the pointlessness of the initial observation.