Why a bleeding stump might be a good thing
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.