Amidst much shroud-waving “jaws of doom” rhetoric, the Labour-run Birmingham City Council has published its budget.There are some big gaps. For example, the council spends £238 million on Children’s Services. That’s not counting the £884 million that goes to the council’s schools via the Dedicated Schools Grant. Most of the £238 million goes on the City’s 1,890 “Looked After Children” – that is children in the care system. There may be more disastrous outcomes for the spending of a quarter of a billion pounds of taxpayers money, but I doubt it. Thankfully it is soon expected to be taken over. Just as failing schools are unacceptable, so are failing teams of social workers who needlessly leave children languishing in care rather than placing them for adoption.
However, this is not the only item of misspending on a mammoth scale. Birmingham City Council’s annual accounts are here. Read them and weep. The debt is £3.25 billion. That’s right. Billion. The spending on interest on the debt costs the council taxpayers of Birmingham £165 million a year. That’s even before we can bring ourselves to contemplate their Pension Fund.
In the coming financial year the council says it will get £255 million in Council Tax. So two thirds of that goes on debt interest. The list of surplus property assets is huge. They also have £81 million of arts assets, the vast majority of which are kept in storage bumping on the council’s insurance bill.
A few weeks ago the Labour Council leader Sir Albert Bore was interviewed on the BBC’s Daily Politics and was most dismissive of the DCLG’s 50 Ways to Save. He said they were already following all the ideas. The truth is that he hasn’t scratched the surface.
For all Sir Albert’s scaremongering about cuts, the council are making some big savings. Some of this might also be a spur to better services – for example their proposed privatisation of leisure centres. Then there is the Big Society approach to involving the community in running libraries, youth work, and parks. But here the detail is rather important.
However Cllr Robert Alden, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group, surely makes a reasonable point when he says that service cuts (for instance on street cleaning) should not be contemplated until a proper effort has been made to address the vast levels of wasteful spending:
“They could have done far more with human resources and legal services, such as bring in an outside company and really brought the cost down.
“They could have also driven more savings from procurement – £200,000 from £1 billion spending is a pittance. A corner shop owner could have found £5 million in savings.”
Birmingham Council’s budget consultation is a muddle. It suggests as options, a Council Tax freeze or a Council Tax increase – implying that any reduction in Council Tax is quite impossible. It shows some examples of where better services can be offered at lower cost. But then it ignores other areas, or resorts to the lazy option of just proposing service cuts.
This certainly isn’t the “jaws of doom” or the “end of local government”. Some services will be improved at lower cost. However, the fact remains that the Labour Party in Birmingham is proposing service cuts, while negligently wasting money, and maintaining a high Council Tax which hits the poorest hardest.
Birmingham deserves better.