The dog that did not bark

By Graham Chapman | 21 June 2016

One of life's mysteries is how the cuts to local government spending and more importantly the way they have been distributed have been subject to so little scrutiny, or so little indignation and so little transparency.

Yet for five years there has been unremitting pressure on local councils in a way that has penalised the worst off.

A correlation between levels of deprivation across local authorities and the level of cuts suffered is a remarkable 0.8.

To quote specific examples, Knowsley, second most deprived council area in England, has lost 33% of its spending power between 2010 and 2017. Wokingham, the least deprived has lost 3%.

The pattern can be repeated for any deprived authority and any well off authority. One of the biggest gainers in the last round was Rutland. One of the biggest losers was again Knowsley.

This policy has taken £ms away from the poor and generally protected the better off, and in real terms the total cuts, excluding the non-funding of pressures, are within the range of those inflicted on the welfare benefits system.

Yet these cuts, and particularly the way they are distributed, have received scant attention. There are probably a number of reasons:

Local government is not seen as exciting news. It just gets on with delivering day-to-day services councils have probably done a good job in protecting their vociferous electorates from most of the effects

Local government spending mainly goes to the disadvantaged and vulnerable who are not in a position to exercise their voice.

Campaigning journalism is more and more being replaced by story-telling which needs heroes and villains. This is not a tale of individual heroes and villains but of un-sensational drip, drip which takes a lot of tracking. It also lacks obvious 'visuals' which make good TV.

Incredulity, that it could be happening in such a discriminatory way, which allows journalists to labelling the raising of the issue as one of political point scoring 'you would say that, wouldn't you'.

Finally there was the shroud provided by the intellectual justification for the Government's approach: that it 'evens out the discrimination perpetrated in favour of the poor areas by the last Labour Government', which I have had put to me a number of times.

This year however, it is different. This year the spending power in a number of poor authorities is now actually lower than in some better off authorities.

For example, the spending power per head in Rutland (148th most deprived, or alternatively 4th richest of the unitary authorities) has now surpassed that of Nottingham (8th most deprived).

So the 'evening out process' has somewhat exceeded its goal and the original justification undermined.

Moreover, this year the underlying process of incessant cuts has begun to hit even Conservative authorities, many of whom have succumbed to the short term fixes offered by Eric Pickles' council tax freeze schemes, and who now find themselves in difficulty.

Nor has the reaction of the Government been that of previous years. It has suddenly decided to listen to pleas from local government. But only parts of it, mainly the shire counties and the outer boroughs. And it has poured munificence upon them in the form of transitional grant.

Surrey got at £24m, followed by Hampshire (£19m), Hertfordshire (£16m), Essex (£14m), West Sussex (£12m), Kent (£11m), Buckinghamshire (£9m) and Oxfordshire (£9m). Kingston on Thames, one of richest boroughs, foolishly froze its council tax last year but got 1.3m transitional grant this year - 80% of the beneficiaries are conservative controlled.

So a number of questions need to be asked: not least what was the basis for the distribution and the model used.

The original reply to my FOI inquiry received a response from the Department for Communities and Local Government that there would be a delay to examine whether the release of the information 'was in the public interest' and the final response failed to provide the detailed spreadsheet allowing a proper assessment of the calculation, though a formula was provided.

A further request for the spreadsheet has now been refused absolutely, as has a request for any correspondence relating to the request on the somewhat ridiculous grounds that 'the public interest served by disclosure of the information would be minimal beyond a small number of interested parties.

We will be appealing because first, it is usual for other parts of the settlement to be accompanied by a spreadsheet, and second only with the spreadsheet can a proper assessment be made.

The Government is patently prevaricating. But the more it does so, the more suspicions increase, that not only the dog is not barking, but that it is being deliberately muzzled.

Graham Chapman is deputy leader of Nottingham City Council

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