Liam Scott-Smith, Government Relations Manager at New Local Government Network and an Executive Member of Bright Blue, says Labour hypocrisy is stopping a serious debate
Cuts to public spending will always hit the poorest hardest… so what’s your alternative then?
Apparently the opposition cuts are nicer and not as nasty. They would cut in such a way as to reduce the deficit, not cause any job losses, reform public services and ensure investment continued in priority areas of the state apparatus. It would be laughable if it wasn’t in fact their position.
At the introduction of the local government finance settlement Shadow Communities and Local Government, Caroline Flint, announced that "there would have been cuts to local government whoever won the election." So it would be great to know, not all, but some of the details of those cuts and in particular how much we’re talking about. Much has been made by the opposition of the settlement hitting the poorest areas hardest, well, I suppose I would have to ask in retort: "As you’ve already said cuts would have come even if you had won… where would you have cut spending from?"
There isn’t an answer to this question I’m afraid. I know because I’m not the first to ask it. The Secretary of State has asked it on a number of occasions. So have his ministerial colleagues. I’m sure if I waded through press clippings I’d find that some hacks have asked the same question. Instead were told by way of an answer that the cuts are targeting the poorest, they’re hitting those who rely on public services the most.
Here is another question: "What cuts in public spending wouldn’t hit the poorest hardest?" Surely the structure of the welfare state in this country would mean that any scale back in its funding/scope would affect the less wealthy as they are the primary users? It strikes me that if the opposition, as Caroline Flint
clearly states, would have made cuts to local government too, then her cuts would have disproportionately hit the poor as well. Just a tad hypocritical.
Most disappointing about the discussion around the local government finance settlement however has been its two dimensional composition. Instead of discussing the much broader question of what should a modern local authority really be doing and what should its funding arrangements look like to ensure greater independence, we’re left with an argument than can be summed up as ‘nice cuts vs nasty cuts’.
The anti-intellectual nature of the debate so far has been unfortunate. It has stymied discussion of public service reform and locked us into the most simplistic of dialectics. Now is not the time to debate over what the size of the local state should be but rather its shape. What services should a council really be providing? Is a postcode lottery a bad thing and are we willing to except it if in turn we get genuine local choice reflected in local service priorities? Should councils be self financing? Should councils have trading powers? All more interesting and more important questions. Finding answers to these is how we shift the debate from spending more vs spending less.
It’s also the debate the opposition don’t want to have because they know it’s one they currently can not win.