Our good friends at the Guardian have produced a public spending cuts site. The rationale is clear – any reduction in public spending is bad, lower public spending means worse services and the appropriate response (no doubt) is to protest. The site is basically a message board for public sector workers who are facing job cuts. I understand the cathartic value to this exercise but we need to be very clear in pointing out why this approach is flawed.
First, no attempt is made to link the performance of the council in delivering public services with the amount of expenditure per head. Productivity clearly is a dirty word at the Guardian. The idea you can deliver quality public services but have low local taxes is not even considered. Wandsworth Borough Council’s public services are consistently rated excellent and that authority has the lowest council tax in the country. The alleged link between the level of public expenditure and the quality of public service is clearly open to question.
Second, there is no attempt to show how different parties are choosing to make spending cuts. Hammersmith & Fulham, Windsor & Maidenhead and Kensington and Chelsea all deliver excellent public services and have lower council tax rates than many comparable Labour authorities. These Conservative authorities have chosen to deliver cost savings through merging their services, reducing their debts (and the consequent debt service bills) and selling off excess public land. Some Labour authorities have chosen to undertake more widescale public service cuts such as closing all their public toilets.
Clearly there are differences of approach based, in part, on the political and ideological differences between councils. The facility to compare which policy areas different parties have chosen to cut would be useful. Instead the site seeks to “plot the effects of the government’s public sector cuts on local communities.” The site includes a map of the UK, not broken down by local authority, with a series of pin shaped coloured blobs indicating spending cuts in different policy areas. The motive is clear – to blame the coalition government for all public spending cuts – even those made by Labour local authorities or devolved administrations.
Third, we are not told the total amount of government spend in different areas and where the money comes from. We have no way of knowing if these cuts are large or small or whether existing government grants are high or low. The DCLG have released a helpful series of maps which reveal the true situation. They show the average council tax per head, the amount of formula grant per citizen and the combined revenue expenditure per head. Citizens should consult these maps before they complain of disproportionate public spending cuts. The DCLG maps highlight how the Conservative shire counties and suburban authorities have clearly been disadvantaged during Labour's term in government.
Fourth, the site does not inform us about whether these councils put alternative measures in place. Some councils will have made these cuts because they have found a more cost efficient means of achieving their objectives. Areas which experienced years of Labour rule and now have new or relatively young Conservative administrations will be experiencing a change. Local leaders may have uncovered a lot of wasteful expenditure and it is their duty to cut it.
Fifth, there is no attempt to show there is any demand for the services which are being cut. The Guardian has simply produced a list of cuts set against a map of the UK. Clearly those who reported the cuts want the services to continue but if I were paid to provide a service which was being cut I would think that too. It may be that Romsey’s audience development agency, which helps cultural institutions develop their audience, is not a vital service. Theatres could be expected to put on performances people want to see at a price they can afford and market themselves accordingly. This is radical thinking, but Glyndebourne has been running since 1934, receives no direct public subsidy and is a stunning success. It can be done.
Nowhere on their cutswatch segment do the Guardian mention the small matter of Britain’s colossal budget deficit which in 2010 amounted to over 10 per cent of GDP. This would help to add some context to these modest public expenditure reductions. Readers may begin to see why we need to reduce public expenditure, some may see the need to make sacrifices to keep the country solvent. I guess that is not the kind of approach that leads people to read the Guardian – it is the Big Society approach not the 'I'm all right Jack' approach.
Cutswatch shows the Guardian at their worst, highlighting their luddite approach to localism where every efficiency measure is a cut and every public sector job should be for life.
The views expressed above are my personal views and not those of my employer or any other organisation with which I am associated.