Squaring the Circle

Cameron doesn’t appear to have a clue about local authorities and the services they need to provide.

This is aptly demonstrated by his recent well publicised letter to the (Conservative) leader of Oxfordshire County Council.  The letter can be seen here.

In that letter Cameron said that he was “Disappointed” with planned cuts to frontline services including children’s centres, elderly day centres, libraries and museums. (Does this sound familiar?)

He also said that the council should sell off its surplus assets.

The implication was that money from the sale of such assets should be used to run services.

The problem with that, is that it would be illegal!

Money from the sale of capital assets can only be used on capital expenditure. So, for example, a council could sell off playing fields (or car parks) for residential development and use that money to build a youth resource centre. But the council couldn’t use the proceeds of such sales for the day-to-day running of such a centre.  (Again does that sound familiar?)

Another issue with selling off assets is that it’s usually for short-term gain. Over the medium to long term it can actually result in reduced revenue, revenue that can be used to fund services.

Cameron also seems to have forgotten that whilst the grant that councils receive from central government has decreased enormously over the past decade, the number of new responsibilities has increased. For example, in April 2013 many public health functions were transferred from the NHS to local authorities. In October of this year public health commissioning responsibilities for children aged 0-5 were also transferred to local government.

So we see an increase in statutory responsibilities coupled with a decline in grants from central government, alongside an inability to raise council tax by more than 1.99% without holding an (expensive) referendum.

Is it surprising that local authorities are getting rid of services that they don’t have a statutory duty to provide and cutting back on those that they do have a statutory duty to provide?

Have you never wondered why there are now very few public toilets? Or why parking in council car parks can be so expensive?  Or why the grass verges are no longer trimmed? Traffic signs are so filthy? Roads are so badly maintained? Bus services are being cut? The list goes on and on.

These are, of course, individually, relatively small things, but taken together they markedly affect the quality of life. And they are things that people care about and notice.

Still, you get what you vote for, and Cameron, of all people, really ought to know that!