Tony Devenish is the London Assembly Member for Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, and the City of Westminster.
Margaret Thatcher’s legacy continue to have an impact. Whenever local government leaders ask for more autonomy, the nagging fear at the back of HM Treasury’s mind is figures from 30 years ago: Lambeth’s Red Ted Knight and Liverpool’s Derek Hatton. Those battles still resonate.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, issues more press releases than most. Almost every week he’s calling for “fiscal autonomy’. Like many people in local government, I’m often sympathetic to this message. While not a natural fan of the last Chancellor George Osborne, on devolution, Osborne was right. The West Midlands Mayor Andy Street and the other Metro Mayors are a force for good. Yet Khan has undermined devolution with his actions of fiscal incontinence. In just two years, he has blown a £1 billion black hole in our largest and economically vital infrastructure: Transport for London.
Recent alarming news that local authorities such as Northamptonshire are close to bankruptcy raise questions about local government – but not the pathetic cry from the Left that “it’s all the fault of austerity/cuts”. The UK’s tax take is at a 49 year high.
In my 12 years as a local councillor, there are seven simple messages I routinely give to elected colleagues as we tighten our belts like any individual, family, or company often has to do.
So here they are:
1. Empower just two elected councillors – often including the Deputy Leader or Cabinet Member for Finance – with the power to sign off all expenditure over £500. Do not allow any local authority officer the power to countermand or circumvent this on pain of dismissal. I have seen this with my own eyes. Even the most spendthrift local government officers become more frugal when they know they will be held accountable for justifying taxpayers money. You will find much proposed spending simply is filed in “the waste paper bin” by the officers themselves and never reaches you.
2. Ringfence – admittedly the largest and most sensitive portfolios – adults/children social care (circa 40 per cent of many councils spending). Appoint specialist oversight before attempting to redesign for improved service delivery for our most vulnerable citizens. Such departments should never be handed over to an accountant “axe man”.
3. While mindful of health and safety and equalities issues – again please seek specialist advice or necessary reforms will be unpicked by trade unions. Push ahead with challenging “line by line” the budgets of your council. Ask “What is this budget for?” “How many officers, on what staffing grades does this pay for?” Learn to spot full time equivalent posts are not the same thing as actual staff in post. Officers inevitably wish to “protect their empire”. Often, literally hundreds of staff in one department include risk and contingency. Eight years into such “cuts” with an annual “root and branch” change programme. A friend in another major council found a £1 million unexplained and forgotten contingency “down the back of the council’s sofa”, or rather buried in an Excel spreadsheet.
4. Ask the question: highlight all services, or parts of services which are non-statutory, e.g. legally not essential that a council provides? Libraries and sports and leisure centres cost a large council tens of millions of pounds. Or rather overstaffing does. Retain the buildings and the valuable community services which the public rightly values. Ask why officers are (possibly) paid twice the market rate with gold plated final salary pensions.
5. While keeping buildings that are being fully used to provide a community service, I wrote recently about both offices which are half empty and land banking. Many public bodies are closing dozens of buildings, improving staff morale and work efficiencies by having staff co-located together. This is helping pay for services for our most vulnerable. What is an outrage is that many councils have sat in a time warp and refused to reform while screaming “cuts”.
6. Get outside your own council and visit others. You will find some councils share services and staff, and some councils have merged with a neighbouring council or public body. This must be driven by locally elected councillors – few officers (with some honourable exceptions) will embrace change with anything other than reluctance. Change is difficult and time consuming but so is the pain Northamptonshire is going through.
7. Rebutting the oldest myth “we’ve had eight years of austerity, we are down to the bone”. Yes, change gets tougher. But it is absolute nonsense that a complex organisation employing hundreds and often thousands of people with assets of tens of millions of pounds, in the case of a county council, a budget each and every year of over one billion pounds (with new money every year), cannot continuously change for the better.
The derision such simple but practical messages receive from our critics owes a lot to the snobbish, arrogant, opinionated nonsense of the infamous 364 “eminent economists” screeched at Mrs Thatcher in The Times in 1981.