Mark Wallace, Senior Account Manager at Portland Communications and author of the Crash Bang Wallace blog, says the Government should not take tthe blame when councils make painful cuts first
The coalition government has taken the first, crucial steps towards reducing the deficit. Like most budgets, local government faces spending cuts that are essential to getting our country out of the horrendous mess left by Gordon Brown.
That initial step of starting to take spending in hand is only the start, not the end of the Government's job, though. Now they need to start fighting back against their critics.
Winning the battle of numbers is not enough if we lose the battle for the reputation of these cuts.
The strategy adopted by those councils who want to discredit the Government is as hard-hitting as it is obvious.
If Eric Pickles hands down cuts to a council controlled by the enemy, they will go out of their way to ensure that it is frontline services that are hit hardest – turning those who use them against the Coalition.
Indeed, we have already seen this start. Numerous heart-rending news reports in the last ten days have featured councils claiming that they are being forced by the Government to close old people's homes, and cut back care for the disabled.
Ministers have a choice. They can either accept responsibility for these cuts, and talk numbers to defend them, or they can hit back.
If Ministers choose the former, they will be falling into the trap – making themselves into public punch bags and granting their opponents the high ground. In this case, to quote the Duke of Wellington, offence is the best form of defence.
Councils should not be allowed to get away with the claim that they aren't responsible for picking the most painful cuts first. In reality, these are choices that councils themselves are making – in preference to cutting activities like arts spending, PR, propaganda sheets, lobbying campaigns, LGA membership and other unneccessary wastes of taxpayers' money.
Ministers must go head to head with them armed with facts to prove them wrong. Instead of ending up as a lamb to the slaughter, they should be asking questions back on why councillors are still increaing their own pay, forking out a fortune to an army of managers, squandering money on spinners and plenty of other things. If Somerset can scrap all arts spending, they should ask, why are you shutting services instead?
Unless we can rebut and defeat the smears coming from councils there is a real risk that these cuts will go through, but the PR battle will be lost – leaving us in a still dire fiscal mess.
This case is strengthened by the reforms Eric Pickles is bringing in to free up councils and localise budget control. Rightly, councils will no longer find endless strings attached to their funding – meaning they must take more responsibility for their decisions.