Why a bleeding stump might be a good thing

Is this too gruesome for a family blog?

Two weeks ago Eric Pickles launched into one of his ‘astonishing attacks’ on local government that on further inspection consists of a good sound bite for the papers within a more general speech. Too much detail to back up his claims would make it easier for others to disagree and as we’ve argued that’s not Mr Pickle’s role in the DCLG.

Anyway, in this speech Mr Pickles said:

But unlike Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband is too weak to take on his unions and his militant council leaders.

He won’t stand up to his councillors and their “bleeding stump” strategy.

A man who can’t even lead his party, can’t expect to lead his country.

So the ‘bleeding stump’ of the weekend’s press was merely an attack on Ed Miliband. Which is fine but not really the place for this blog.

However, it got me thinking: might the ‘bleeding stump’ policy actually be a good thing?

Please, before throwing your latest supply of Eric Pickle’s pies in the direction of WLLG towers, do hear me out.

My assumption is that a ‘bleeding stump’ strategy is actually a ‘decision’ strategy. Local authorities who follow this approach make (possibly rational) decisions about whether or not they can support all their services, prioritising those that they want to continue with and regrettably closing those which they can no longer support.

The rationale is that if something is worth doing then it is worth doing well. If not then the council should remove the service in order to allow them to focus on those services which are judged to be worth continuing with.

I’m not saying that the cuts, and non-cuts, in local authorities pursuing the so-called ‘bleeding stump’ are without controversy (Manchester spending money – even if it’s only 1/5 of the salary – on an anti-nuclear officer… really?) but in general you end up with a number of good services and have to close a few smaller ones.

This strategy also allows you to make the big cuts early, in line with Government intentions (lets get it out of the way before a general election), but also to make some long term strategic decisions that should protect the services left for the long term.

When thought of in this way the ‘bleeding stump’ becomes rational.

The opposite of the ‘bleeding stump’ is categorically not the ‘painless reduction in spending on stuff that we don’t need anyway’. In many cases the opposite of the ‘bleeding stump’ is actually the salami slice.

I spent some time this week with services that have found their staffing numbers reduced down to levels where the services they run are no longer able to be delivered at the same quality as they once were. The services still exist, which is politically expedient, but the service levels are definitely in decline. Is this better than making tough decisions and keeping a slightly smaller number of quality services?

I’m not sure it is.

What Eric Pickles describes as the ‘bleeding stump’ might just be councils taking a responsible long term view and selecting services they think their public value and ensuring they continue at a good level rather than just slicing everything at the same level.

As always, the issue of local government services and the budget decisions local authorities need to make are much more complicated than they seem and simple sound-bites are of less value.

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5 Comments on “Why a bleeding stump might be a good thing”

  1. Mark Stanley Says:

    Hmm, thought provoking stuff, if a bit icky!

    Sounds as if you are arguing that it is better to chop off one whole hand than to chop off a digit from each hand and foot?

    I don’t think I agree. Maybe I’d feel different if we were talking about a business where the competition would step in to fill the gap, but we are not. We are talking about services that are the safety net for a public who is tiptoeing across life’s tightrope. Sure we can get away with a few holes most of the time, but some poor bugger’s going to fall through it.

    • localgov Says:

      Are we though? In my experience there is plenty that my Council delivers that could be argued isn’t within its core purpose. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have and makes a lot of people happy, but is it essential? Probably not.

      And I love your metaphor! Perhaps it could be extended and made a little more gruesome by suggesting that either the hand or digits have gangrene – if we don’t make the chop now then they could fester and cause far more serious problems later on.

      • Mark Stanley Says:

        It is true that most LAs could look at some of their services and say they aren’t core to its purpose(arrgh!! lost dogs spring to mind)

        Its a path that too often ends up with the sport, arts and culture funding getting a kicking!

        Gangrene is appropriate – it is caused by an interruption of the supply of blood to an area, causing it to wither and die.

  2. Ed Hammond Says:

    Difficut one – in a strategic sense there is obvious logic to “bleeding stump” – you’re focusing on a few core services rather than spreading limited resources more widely. Basically, you’re targeting public funds where they can have most value.

    At local level though, that argument is not going to hold water with the users of a social care day centre that you’re shutting down.

    Neither approach is particularly ideal. But what do you do if you have to make £30 million in savings – next week?

    This has got me thinking about wider issues of what “productivity” and “value” are – hmm…

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