The eccentric mechanism for funding local Government known as the Barnet Formula creates many opportunities for Government Ministers to ‘reward’ councils whose politics or behaviour they approve of. This seems bizarre in the 21st Century when Ministers claim that their actions are transparent and that they are accountable to you and I as taxpayers and consumers of local services. In the Local Government Act 2000 the Labour government placed a requirement on many councils to establish Local Strategic Partnerships, a coalition of agencies such as the Police, Fire and Rescue, Health, Local Government and the Voluntary Sector including faith groups. I was invited to participate in a number of these across Sussex, and simultaneously to represent faith groups on a body known as the South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA). As a result of many conversations with politicians and council officers it became clear how unfair many decisions are at the margins. During the years of Labour control in Brighton & Hove and a Labour Government, the city was reputed to contain more ‘pilots’ [schemes] than at Gatwick Airport. Every time the Government wanted to test out an idea, they would find some money and hand it with the idea to a council who they wanted to help succeed. If they couldn’t find a suitable council of the same political colour, they would go somewhere that the leader of the council could be relied on to be supportive. Whilst the late Sandy Bruce-Lockhart was leader of Kent County Council, the rumour was that he had greater access to John Prescott (as Minister for Local Government) than most members of the Labour Party.
Now 3 years into a Conservative dominated government, it is inevitable that the same games are being played by Ministers to assist Conservative run councils. On Thursday Baroness Royall, the Labour leader of the opposition in the House of Lords tweeted under her twitter handle @LabourRoyall “Britain’s ten poorest areas face biggest council cuts – as rich Tory authorities get budget rises http://bit.ly/1fyFUTB All in it together?” The link in the tweet is to an article in the Daily Mirror. The article reports “Deprived boroughs in Liverpool, London, Manchester and Middlesbrough, will lose ten times more from the government than the ten richest according to research Britain’s 10 worst-off areas will suffer the biggest council cuts – as some rich Tory authorities get budget rises, research shows.”
The rest of the article is worth a read, but it should be ingested with a serious health warning. Measuring poverty can be achieved using many mechanisms, some of which result in conflicting answers and the poorest region in the UK, will be made up of some wealthy Counties or Districts and these will each contain many local areas of acute poverty and extreme wealth. There are parts of Sussex where wealthy residents of Multi-Million pound mansions live in the same village as people who are dependent on benefits and foodbanks. However the political outcome of elections has no nuances, and some corrupt politicians seem to believe that manipulating the amount of money granted to Councils is a legitimate way of keeping their party in power at either a Council or Parliamentary level.
According to the Mirror article, Shadow Communities Secretary Hilary Benn said: “These figures are shocking. They show the direct impact of David Cameron and Eric Pickles’s unfair policies. “The Government claims that those with the broadest shoulders must bear the biggest burden, but they are doing the exact opposite and hitting the poorest communities hardest.” “One Nation Labour will ensure that future funding of vital council services is done on the basis of need.” Whilst I am sure that Hilary Benn is not being intentionally dishonest, there can be no doubt that when he and Baroness Royall are part of the Government benches, that the same tricks will be employed by their Party, that Eric Pickles and his colleagues are currently employing.
What we all need is a mechanism for determining local government funding that really is based on need and ignores party political identity within local government. It needs to be one that reflects need at the most local level, including the issue of rural poverty. I would personally like to see Party Politics play a much less significant role in local government in any case but the issue of funding is much more pressing than political reform. It is vital that our Government should be allowed to set strategic policies based on principles and political judgement and then for a truly transparent mechanism to be utilised to implement these, without any prospect of party political distortion, including in the 15 months before an election. The setting of the minimum wage, and bank rates is no longer left to Politicians, it is time for the setting of our local government budgets to also be taken out of their hands. We are not dogs, and these men and women need to have the bells removed from their hands!