There has been a lot of talk in the media recently about Councils using stealth taxes and raising charges in order to pay for the salaries of their Chief Execs and other senior managers. Normally I would ignore such things as the tripe that they are, but over the weekend and the beginning of this week some fairly big names have waded into the debate.
On Monday I heard Grant Shapps discussing this on BBC London, and listened to him trot out this and other lines such as how local authorities should need to do nothing more than a bit of restructuring to save the 4.5%. He happily glossed over the fact that many Councils are facing a cut of much more than this, with some having to make 8.9% this year and then keep on cutting until they’ve saved over 25% over the next few years.
He then spouted the old faithful: “how many chief execs earn more than the Prime Minister”. We’ve spoken about this ridiculous argument before, but it seems to be the default position when it comes to anything to do with money and local authorities. This arbitrarily set wannabe high-water mark should be something that the Daily Express came up with and championed, but instead it appears to have gained traction with the impressionable masses.
The trouble with all of this talk is that it paints local government in a universally bad light. Central government seems to be positioning itself to blame local government should anything go wrong, and in examining the pay of a handful of executives has a quick and easy tag line to stand behind. They ignore the fact that even if these execs went down to a fraction of what they earned, this still wouldn’t even make a dent in the amount that has to be saved and would be nothing more than a political statement.
Local government is in an impossible situation right now. If we raise council tax and charges in order to make money to continue as close to normal as possible, we will be slammed for insensitivity and kicking people when they are down. If we reduce services and cut our cloth according to our budget then we get slammed for leaving people unsupported. If we ignore it all and carry on regardless we get slammed for financial irresponsibility.
Loads of Councils are or have been running consultations on their budgets and what local people think should be done, and some have done a decent job of conveying the difficulties of the decisions. Some haven’t done quite as well, and were presented in the most leading way possible. Questions like “should we spend money on children and schools?” sit before “should we try to make some efficiencies?”. What answer are they expecting when they ask this?!
People need to properly understand that local government is not the enemy here. We are not happy about the situation, we don’t like having to make these choices and we have no preordained plan which will sort everything out. We are going to be doing everything we can to keep as many services as possible (perhaps whether they should be kept or not) and we really do want to do the best for local people.
The sooner they can accept and understand this, the sooner we can all stop playing the blame game and trying to find someone to string up. Some people might not think we are all in this together, but I’d like to think that at least local people and government are.