It hardly needs me to tell you that we have a tough time ahead. By now our Treasurers will have cut through the media spin and know how much less cash will be available next year. We are going to have to take some difficult decisions and the opposition will irresponsibly claim cataclysmic results.
But let’s get real. I didn’t stand for election to be an administrator or for an easy life and I doubt you did either. We stood to represent and serve our local community, set policy and take decisions about local public services.
Today, we have to consider the demands and needs of our areas. We have to balance these against what is affordable after 13 years of Labour channelling money into State services as if there was no tomorrow. Well, that tomorrow is today and, yet again, the country looks to Conservatives to sort out the mess.
Listening to Conservative councillors around the country – bar a few exceptions – what I am not hearing is the doom and gloom being peddled by opposition councillors on the Today Programme and at every opportunity. What I am hearing is realism that the savings needed are substantial, that they cannot be met simply through efficiency or structural changes (though this is where we start) and that they will have an impact.
What is also clear is that there is an appetite for change and the challenge before us. Increasingly, often unwittingly, councillors have become administrators rather than elected representatives. We have got used to doing what we were told or allowed to do. Well that is changing fast. Our Government has said “here’s your money. There’s less, but you choose how to spend it”. In recent weeks many of us have looked in amazement at the lists of schemes and initiatives once funded by specific grant that might have reflected a Labour government’s priorities but certainly don’t reflect local ones.
Once again, elected local councillors have a real job to do. We have to question all those schemes and initiatives that have built up over the years, some dictated from above, others decided by us for good reason but often long ago, in different times.
We have to challenge how services that are truly valued and needed are provided. And that means we have to be less concerned about whether City, Town or County Hall runs things or shares things or lets others provide them. Let’s face it; local people don’t care about our structures and tiers. They want influence over local public services. They want to hold decision-makers accountable. And they want careful thought put into what is provided with the money available.
Those standing for election in May, including Conservatives currently in opposition, have a distinctive message for voters: that we are ready for and excited by the opportunity to reform local public services, reflecting local priorities and making them fit for the future rather than the past.
Happy New Year!