Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Cuts, Kind And Unkind

In Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, Sir Walter Eliot, a man of estate and mortgages but reduced income has to be told that “Retrenchment” is necessary. Being a vain and difficult man used to his comforts and especially status he finds it almost impossible to accept before being gently leveraged into it by his close advisers.

They wish to avoid the embarrassment and difficulties that would arise were he to go under. Inevitably, the minor hardships of the family are as little compared to the laid off servants and estate workers. He had to be reminded of what could happen.

If you want to see what could happen soon in UK local government look across the Atlantic at the developing bloodbath in local services in the USA at State, County and Township level. Small town America is going into stasis and in many cases collapse.

Whilst some local services may have become too generous, over blown and over ambitious they were as nothing compared to what the Brown Spendfest did in our own local government.

There are those who are shrieking about “cuts” when there are figures that show that apparently all Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Cable are up to is to slow the rate of growth of spending appreciably. The suggestion is the “cuts” will relate only to planned growth and not existing services and there is much fine talk of ring fencing etc. In your dreams, baby, in your dreams.

Been there, done that, in that in the late 70’s and into the 80’s I was there. The mad Heath (was anything sane he touched?) reorganisation of the early 1970’s was accompanied by the adoption of over ambitious standards and schemes to prove the worth of all the upset and turmoil.

All the local politicking of the early 1970’s that was involved meant bidding promises going up and up. At the turn of the decade it all had to be put through the various mincers in the next few years.

With regret, I have to say that the situation is far worse today than it was then. This is not only in terms of the gross numbers of increase and extent of activity, it is within the structure of the budgets. To begin with, the relevant pension schemes then, if anything were running a small surplus. There was no need to worry about bailing them out with taxpayer money.

Also, there was not the curse of PFI schemes with their absolute priority on revenues and the way they ratchet up over time. The cost of buying them out is extreme. There were not the hordes of consultants, financial advisers and other sundry hangers on not only taking a handsome cut but with watertight contracts.

In a similar way there were not the numbers of top and senior executives on salary multiples way, way above levels of thirty years ago. Also, there were not senior staff and management contracts with expensive get out clauses and huge inbuilt pension commitments.

We did have a few quango’s that were a nuisance and some regional bodies albeit on a very small scale and doing some useful liaison work. We did not have the huge complex of agencies and other bodies now which need major staff work within the local authority to keep in touch with and to be consulted before any significant decision or funding was needed.

There was far less legislation governing what we did, how we did it, why we did it and how we were accountable for doing what someone or group elsewhere thought might be a good idea or keep some noisy people with access to the media happy. There was nothing like box ticking or hideously complicated legal requirements all with unintended consequences that mire us in confusion and costs.

Employment legislation of one kind or another still imposed restrictions as did the agreed conditions of service for most employees. But these were light years away from those of today and whilst bound by UK law we were not then subject to all the vagaries and notions embodied in European and related laws. Then we could still understand what we were doing or at least make an informed guess. Now, does anybody really know or grasp all that is entailed?

At least we knew where to start and how to do something. It was unpleasant and distasteful for the most part. Also, there were still fixed elements in our budgets that were difficult to reduce or to amend. So a good many of the reductions and adjustments, or retrenchments became the cuts of the time in a number of services.

What should terrify you is that the percentage we had to cut, by my estimate, was less than half of what needs to be cut now. If it can’t come out of the fixed parts of the budget it will have to come out of the services.

Perhaps the message next time you ring the Council will simply say, don’t ring us, we’ll ring you.

1 comment:

  1. There is a lovely verse by G.K.Chesterton which used to bring me comfort in testing times;

    "And when the pedants bade us mark
    What cold mechanic happenings must come,
    Yet our souls said in the dark,
    'Belike, but there are likelier things'".

    I've just tried it again and it doesn't work any more.

    As you so rightly point out, it's not cuts that the Coition Gummint is talking about, but just slowing the horses from a panicked gallop to a not-quite-so-panicked gallop towards the abyss.

    They aren't thick these people, and if we can see it surely so can they. In which case their behaviour is a dereliction.