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Hardly new news, but austerity research names names

Hardly new news, but austerity research names names

🕔19.Oct 2018

Few academic journal articles about local government are even – I speak from experience – widely read.  As for a publication day BBC Newsnight interview with Kirsty Wark – in your dreams!  Last week’s case, therefore, merits investigation writes Chris Game

The article’s title – “The depths of the cuts: the uneven geography of local government austerity” – in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, is commendably jargon-lite, but not obviously “Hold-the-front-page!” newsworthy.

Indeed, I’d question the authors’ upfront claim about there having previously been “little analysis comparing the cuts across governments in the UK, or exploring the uneven nature of regional patterns.”

I reckon there’s been plenty – including by the National Audit Office since 2014, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and, from at least 2012/13, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Indeed, the JRF’s 2015 study used the same Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) as do the Cambridge authors, to show how even then “the most deprived English authorities had a level of cut nearly six times higher than … the least deprived areas” (p.1, my emphasis).

In short, the grossly skewed impacts of the Government’s austerity programme have been regularly addressed in academic, think tank, and government reports – not to the point when they shouldn’t be repeated and shouted at cloth-eared ministers, but beyond the point of their being news.

In summary, therefore, while always worth substantiating, it is not news, as the first part of this article records:

  • that local government has suffered a severer rate of funding cuts since 2010 than most other relatively more protected sectors of government spending;
  • that, while some departmental budgets, most notably Health, have actually increased, that of the (now) Housing, Communities and Local Government Department (DHCLG), has fallen by over half, significantly more than any other;
  • that English local governments have consequently suffered considerably larger funding cuts than those in Scotland and Wales with their very different block grant funding settlements from Westminster;
  • that councils with greater concentrations of disadvantaged population groups have from the outset suffered faster or deeper cuts, particularly those in urban areas;
  • that councils, required to set balanced, legal budgets each year, have delivered the required savings while trying to protect those ‘frontline’ and particularly social care services – some statutory, some not – on which poorer and most vulnerable groups are most dependent, inevitably at the relative expense of the non-statutory/discretionary: subsidised bus journeys, planning, environmental and cultural services, etc.
  • None of this is fake news, and it’s certainly important, but it’s not new news.  So what was this Cambridge study’s particular appeal to Kirsty and Newsnight?

My personal guess comes in five parts:

  • It wasn’t Brexit (boring) or Saudi Arabia (complicated).
  • It could link into both the PM’s extraordinary Birmingham Conference announcement of the end of austerity and the tricky but fast approaching Budget.
  • Its two authors – Mia Gray and Anna Barford – are women, from a university in which women constitute under a third of academic staff and under a fifth of the professoriate. Good for the on-screen gender balance, and indeed Cambridge U.
  • Their article provides its own visual aids – see below – thus saving the Beeb some money.
  • But, above all, they name names – of individual ‘biggest loser’ councils, rather than types (London boroughs, metropolitan districts, etc.) – in an exercise in which there are no absolute winners.

I too will borrow a couple of their visual aids, between them illustrating perhaps the most fundamental and essentially undisputed fact of all: that by 2019/20, English councils collectively will have lost at least 60% of the Government’s grant funding for services that it was providing in 2010, with almost half (168) receiving no core central funding at all.

They won’t, however, all individually have lost 60%, because some were – and, of course, remain – very much more dependent on grant funding than others, as shown in this first map.

In 2009/10, councils across much of South-Central England (up to Cotswold, if you were wondering) already had low proportions of their budgets – frequently under a third – funded from central government. Their spending needs were/are relatively lower and their council tax and business rate bases higher.

At the other extreme, with much greater spending needs and lower tax bases, a few Inner London boroughs were over 80% grant funded. And most Northern industrial cities and their surrounding areas, much of Outer London, plus Peterborough, Leicester, Derby and five of the seven West Midland boroughs (all except Dudley and Solihull) were dependent on central government for around two-thirds to three-quarters of their budgets.

And so to the first major ‘finding’ of the Cambridge study.  With these grant dependency proportions varying so greatly across councils, “across-the-board austerity cuts in local government spending have fallen most heavily on those local areas with greatest need” (p.10).

At the same time, there is still, even in our hyper-centralised governmental system, some local difference, some local discretion and prioritisation across councils.

Some, suggest the authors, are relatively better placed “to act as a buffer between their residents and the full brunt of the local government austerity cuts”, and therefore, as Newsnight viewers saw for themselves, actual spending cuts have varied considerably across even councils with similar degrees of grant dependence.

Actual service cuts from 2009/10 to 2016/17, the study found, ranged from 46% “to a mere 1.6%” – or to East Riding of Yorkshire’s 5%, if you exclude the exceptional-in-every-way Isles of Scilly and City of London.

The median or midpoint reduction among English councils was 24%, twice that in Scotland and Wales, and all 46 found to have cut by 30% or more are in England – including, despite not having been highlighted by Kirsty to quite the extent it might have been, Birmingham.

I myself have used similar tables before, and a common instant reaction is one of slight anti-climax that, given the grant dependence build-up, there isn’t an even higher correlation between councils’ deprivation rankings (compiled, incidentally by the DHCLG) and these service spending cuts.

To which my response is twofold. First, bearing in mind the two differing scales – 147 ranked upper-tier and unitary councils, but 326 IMD rankings – it’s statistically better than it at first looks.

Take the top 25 of the 147, but exclude the 9 London boroughs, on the grounds of their several exceptionalities, shown in part in the table’s final column.

Of the remaining 16, whose residents have all seen cuts of over a third in service spending, 12 are in the top one-sixth of already the most deprived councils. And the others – Slough, Wigan, Gateshead and North Tyneside – can’t feature on many ‘chic city’ shortlists.

Second, pause and think of what it means to be on either the deciding or receiving end of now virtually a decade of making or taking cuts in services, for almost all of which there is a steady or increasing demand and many of which are statutory and can’t be cut, even if you wanted to.

And, please, don’t fall into the trap of looking at such tables and imagining that, if, like most of our West Midlands councils, you’ve had to find spending cuts of ‘only’ 11 to 19%, then pas de problème, you’ve not that much to worry about.

Not quite as much as Birmingham perhaps, but just ask those council leaders, as the PM probably didn’t when she popped into the West Midlands for her party’s conference.  So the Labour ones told her anyway, in an open letter warning that her Government’s continuous cuts have brought the region to the brink of “social collapse” and calling for a “complete reform” of council funding.

But it’s what, as I described, many of her own party members and councillors were saying in the conference fringe meetings, and partly why I concluded that blog as I’ll conclude this one – by quoting Kent County Council Leader, Paul Carter.

He’d welcome “complete reform” as much as anyone, but in the short term he’d settle,  more realistically, for at least “a new needs-led methodology” of funding distribution, “away from London, with its ludicrously low rates”.

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