Cllr Anthony Boutall is a Borough Councillor for Kempston Central & East on Bedford Borough Council
The vision of more dog excrement on the pavement due to fewer bins. The prospect of fewer libraries for local communities. Recreational opportunities for the elderly and vulnerable suddenly slashed in this year’s budget. Youth activities for local children dropped from the list of Borough Council funding. Disabled people suffering uneven pavement surfaces in key areas that desperately need wheelchair access.
These are some of the things we have come to expect over here at the coalface in leafy Bedford Borough.
A lot of this is due to incompetence and flawed priorities. For instance, despite the knowledge of austerity and awareness of funding gaps, the Lib Dem/Labour executive in Bedford Borough has failed to develop a libraries policy in the entirety of their seven years in charge, which might have gone some way to prepare the ground for changes to keep the services afloat. This is plainly absurd.
Despite putting up Council Tax by the maximum amount permitted by government in the last council budget, Lib Dem and Labour Councillors thought it appropriate to vote to increase their own allowances. This move takes around £7,000 extra from the kitty this year alone, with the actual budget for allowances rising to £737,030, while at the same time they have slashed a similar amount of money from local charities and groups in dire need of it. That loss of funding genuinely puts the likes of Bedford’s Guild House and local children’s clubs, such as those in Kempston where I am a councillor, at terminal risk.
But there is another reason for all this headwind. Despite the incompetence, inefficiency, and flawed priorities of Bedford’s local government, our Lib Dem and Labour comrades across the benches do have one solitary point; we are having to manage a greater number of issues every year, with a rising population and changing demographics, equipped with increasingly less money.
Improvements in the council’s ability to manage priorities can and should be made – I am firmly of the belief that my local council still has a lot of room for efficiency improvements, and it is absolutely right that we expect that from bodies funded by taxpayers up and down this country. But it is factually accurate that local authorities have seen a steeper fall in funding during the so-called period of ‘austerity’ than has been the case for other departments.
From 2010-11 to 2015-16, budgetary funds available for the Department for Communities and Local Government were cut by about 50 per cent in real terms, making it the most proportionally affected department of all. Whether justified in their outcry or not, our Lib Dem and Labour friends in Bedford Borough have recourse to this essential fact – and trust me, they are not afraid to use it as an excuse for offloading responsibility as frequently as possible.
All things being equal, I don’t think Conservatives should whinge about this, even if it plays well with local audiences to do so. We were elected at national level to get a grip on public finances and that’s exactly what we should be doing. Even though the Conservatives are in opposition in Bedford Borough and elsewhere – and therefore have more room to score political points by railing against the council’s decisions – it is probably appropriate that we supported the executive’s budget this year, given the financial constraints under which it was written. It is good, grown up politics to accept constraints on those making the decisions, and to work together when necessary.
But the problem is, all things are not equal, and that solitary point of less funding to meet more local demand still stands. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) counts £36 billion as the total amount saved through austerity measures under the last Conservative-Lib Dem government of 2010-2015 and, as outlined above, a sizeable proportion of that was faced by local government.
The problem is this: the £36 billion saved from austerity measures is dwarfed by the mammoth £85 billion the IFS states we gave to the EU in the form of membership fees for the same period of 2010-2015.
Even if you accept the argument that we shouldn’t count the gross figure but should instead go by the net figure (i.e. the total amount given, then subtracted by that which the EU was kind enough to give back to us on their own terms and with their own branding plastered across), the amount is still £42 billion. That means that the aggregate total saved from every single austerity measure brought in by the last government was less than the amount we would have saved from not being in the EU, even if you insist on only counting our net contribution.
That figure is before you count the £1.7 billion retrospective bill we received for our economy having ‘grown too quickly’ or the hundreds of millions of pounds we are donating towards preparations for the accession of Turkey, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia to the EU.
This taxpayers’ money has gone to an institution whose accounts haven’t been signed off by auditors in the last two decades; an organisation which managed to lose nearly a billion dollars to fraud in just the last year, according to their own European Anti-Fraud Office.
Those of us who compose the Conservative grassroots – who go out in sunshine and rain to fight the corner for our party – are prepared to defend the argument that this stubborn deficit should be eliminated sooner rather than later. We are happy to go to doorsteps, church halls, gurdwaras, schools, and pubs to discuss the benefits of sensible financial management and to promote the cause of cutting government spending where possible to leave more room for the engine of growth that is our private sector.
We are less happy putting up with dog mess, closed libraries, dangerous pavements, and local traffic fiascos as we sacrifice to the alter of European Union membership money that could otherwise be designated to these concerns.
According to the IFS figures, outside the EU, we could have avoided all austerity measures in the last government and still had room to cut tax. Alternatively, with the same pains we’ve felt through exactly the same austerity measures, at least we would have seen the prize of an eliminated deficit years ago, and therefore the ability of going about actually paying down our national debt. We would have all been in it together to see the fruit of our efforts together.
None of us know what would have happened in the last parliament outside the EU, and which departments would have been given access to the money we otherwise streamed into Brussels over that period, and continue to stream every day. A great benefit of being outside the EU is that these types of decisions would be fully determined by the democratically elected government – novel as it sounds, it might just work!
There is one thing we do know; the numbers speak for themselves. As Conservatives, we should encourage greater efficiency in public spending across the board, both at local and national level.
But justifying spending less and less on local concerns is very hard to do when we are giving away that money, and much more, to an unaudited institution in a different country.
Between the choices of keeping that local library open, sorting that traffic congestion, and fixing those pavements or, on the other hand, paying membership fees to an unaccountable and unaudited institution in Brussels, I think the decision should be pretty clear to most of us. It is one of the many reasons I will be voting to leave the EU and take control.