This Sunday there was an apocalyptic letter, from three Labour council leaders, published in The Observer. It was signed by Cllr Nick Forbes, the Leader of Newcastle City Council; Cllr Julie Dore, the Leader of Sheffield City Council; and Joe Anderson the Mayor of Liverpool. It objected to further cuts in the Revenue Support Grant.
In their letter they say:
"Rising crime, increasing community tension and more problems on our streets will contribute to the break up of civil society if we do not turn back."
The letter adds that what "we have today is a brand of Conservatism that has no social conscience" concluding:
"We urge them to stop what they are doing now and listen to our warnings before the forces of social unrest start to smoulder."
It follows a longer letter sent before Christmas as an "Open Letter" to Eric Pickles. The previous missive lacked the hyperbole, although included an inevitable mention of the "graph of doom." It was also signed by the Labour leaders of Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham and Manchester. Why were their signatures missing from the Observer letter? Did they feel it was a bit too OTT?
The earlier letter said "to be clear from the outset none of us is under any illusion about the need for spending reductions." The "spending power" reduction for 2013/14 is 1.7%. What do the Labour council leaders say the figure should be? 1%? 0.5%? Are they saying the riots kick off at 1.3%? Do they find the Greek experience of delay in dealing with public finances encouraging in terms of social order?
Eric Pickles has acknowledged that Birmingham has particular problems due to the council's "screaming incompetence" over its £757 million compensation bill to former female staff over equal pay. Mr Pickles is being flexible.
But for other councils the scaremongering coincides with increases in their reserves. Liverpool for example reports an increase in reserves of £8.1 million last year due to a "General Fund Underspend" – meaning they reached £24.1 million in reserves as of March 31 2012. Has Mayor Anderson read his own council's Statement of Accounts?
On the other hand, let us assume that the council leaders are being serious in their warnings. That it would be impossible for them to implement the spending cuts required without producing civil unrest. Should they not then avoid the cuts by Council Tax increases? Of course they would need a referendum for rises above 2%, but shouldn't they take their case to the people of their cities?
To paraphrase Clint Eastwood:
Do you feel lucky Cllr Forbes, Cllr Dore and Mayor Anderson? Well do you punks?