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Birmingham’s sharing the pain, but from outside the tent

Birmingham’s sharing the pain, but from outside the tent

🕔29.Nov 2013

If there were an online dating agency for councils, would Birmingham join? My guess is no.

The rationalisation would be the subscription fee, which would obviously be attacked by the Tories, and possibly others, for taking money away from front-line services and hard-working families. But the real reason would surely be that we’re too big, too important, to want to get that close and personal with all those smaller councils.

After all, we’re the only UK exec committee member of Eurocities (up yours, Boris!), and this very week we’ll be socialising in Ghent at their annual conference. Then we’ve got our Core Cities chums, the self-selected group of England’s seriously large regional cities.

When it comes down to it, what would we really have to talk about with the pl – oops, I nearly typed the naughty word – the colleagues from those worthy, but really slightly undersized, towns?

Well, to judge from the latest report from SIGOMA – the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities – quite a bit. They’re a corporate membership group, seeking to represent as forcefully and collectively as possible the shared interests of most of the large towns and cities in the northern, midland and south coast regions of England.

‘Most of’, because there are a few urban authorities in these regions which don’t see themselves as sharing the interests of the majority, and/or who choose not to add their volume to the collective voice.

Some you can understand. With most municipal authorities being Labour dominated or controlled, the few Conservative exceptions, like Solihull and Trafford, could feel a bit like gate crashers. But for Birmingham, by far the biggest, to be one of only two Labour metropolitan boroughs, and the only one in the West Midlands, not to lend its support seems surprising and, on the face of it, smacks of freeloading.

For, there’s no possible doubt that, though we choose to do it from outside the SIGOMA tent, we share their members’ pain. Pretty well every word of their latest report, A Fair Future or a Growing Divide? – or at least of the pages they’ve released to non-members – could have been written by or on behalf of Birmingham’s leader, Sir Albert Bore – as could the two earlier ones, All in This Together? and A Fair Future? 

SIGOMA is a region-conscious organisation, and regional statistics are the ones it makes generally available, rather than those for its individual member authorities.

For England as a whole, it estimated that by 2012 the Government’s funding cuts had already cost the average local authority £85 per head. That average, though, comprised at one end of the scale London, whose authorities had gained an average of £45 per head, and at the other end the East Midlands, whose authorities had lost an average of £160 per head.

West Midlands authorities were close to the high-loss end, at £141 per head, or two-thirds more than the English average.

Looking ahead, SIGOMA reckons that by 2017/18, as the result of policies already announced, the average English local authority will have lost £188 per head in funding cuts, and, if the impact of welfare reforms is included, £487 per head. Estimates for the West Midlands are £265 and £571, and for SIGOMA authorities, which Birmingham would be expected most closely to resemble, £318 and £685.

SIGOMA’s hope, in publishing these figures at this time, is not, realistically, to get the Government to reverse any of this designed disparity, but to try to dissuade the Chancellor in his annual Autumn Statement to Parliament on December 5th from making it any worse.

Specifically, SIGOMA wants the Government to undertake an evaluation of the holistic impact of its cuts and funding changes since 2010, including welfare reform, and to re-establish a link between the cost of services and the funding provided to run them.

It is also concerned about the proposed new NHS formula for allocating resources across England’s clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), and calls on the Government to ensure that the allocation reflects its professed aim to reduce health inequalities between the most affluent and the poorest areas, rather than increase them.

These sound precisely the kinds of demands we hear regularly from our own council leadership, so, to repeat, it seems odd to this outsider that it chooses not to add its weight to the SIGOMA cause.

As for the shared nature of that cause, there is a coloured map in the SIGOMA report demonstrating in well-chosen hues the varying degrees of financial gain or pain councils are projected to experience through local government funding cuts alone by 2017-18.

The gainers – of up to £580 per head – are coloured blue/grey and, with the exception of Brighton & Hove, are entirely in London and the home counties: most of Surrey plus the posh bits of Bucks, Herts and Essex.

The big losers – of between £300 and £500 per head – are an equally distinctive dark maroon. They’re more scattered than the gainers, with numerous municipal outliers: Plymouth and Torbay in Devon, Bristol, Norwich, Harlow in Essex, Leicester, Derby and Nottingham in the East Midlands, Stoke and Telford & Wrekin in the West Midlands region.

But again there are unmissable concentrations: an unbroken band across the north, from South Tyneside, Sunderland, Durham and Hartlepool in the east to Allerdale (Cumbria) in the west; most of South Yorkshire; most of Merseyside and Greater Manchester; the north coast of East Anglia, from Great Yarmouth round to Kings Lynn.

Plus the metropolitan West Midlands: Birmingham, and SIGOMA members: Sandwell, Dudley, Walsall and Wolverhampton. We’re suffering the same pain alright, but we’d prefer to do it on our own, thanks very much.

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