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The ‘leafy’ Wokingham – ‘needy’ Birmingham divide needs to end

The ‘leafy’ Wokingham – ‘needy’ Birmingham divide needs to end

🕔19.Dec 2013

The good people of Wokingham in the Royal County of Berkshire must dread this time of the year.

For some reason the town has found itself at the top of a Labour Party hit list.

Perhaps it is because right-wing Tory John Redwood is the MP, but whenever Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announces the provisional spending settlement for local authorities, Labour-led councils across the country scurry to inspect the small print to discover how generous the Government has been with Wokingham.

And for 2014-15, the southern softies in Wokingham are receiving a small increase in funding while Birmingham will suffer an above-inflation decrease.

Cue appalled outrage from the Labour leader of Birmingham City Council Sir Albert Bore.

Sir Albert was sharply off the starting blocks yesterday with pretty much a repeat of what he said this time last year, although with a few un-Albertlike adjectives thrown into a press release. Can anyone really imagine Sir Albert really saying “whopping increase” or “leafy Wokingham”?

According to the press release, Sir Albert is furious.

Here’s what he had to say: “Today’s provisional financial settlement confirms our worst fears about the financial crisis that is hitting Birmingham City Council and the city. It shows that we face even more, big cuts in 2015-16 following the £120m reduction we are consulting on for 2014-15.

“But what is even clearer from today’s figures is the staggering unfairness with which cuts are being distributed around the country. Put simply, the less well-off areas with the greatest needs, such as large regional cities, are seeing spending slashed whilst richer areas in the South-east will see increases in funding next year.

“In 2014-15 Birmingham will lose £145.49 (-5.3%) per dwelling, on the Government’s preferred measure of spending power. The national average cut will be less than half that figure at £71.58 (-3.1% for England) per dwelling. But in leafy Wokingham there will an increase in funding of £5.20 (+ 0.3%) per dwelling.

“But it gets worse in the following year. In 2015-16 Birmingham will see an even bigger fall in spending power of £147.15 (-5.6%) per dwelling. The national figure will be just £45.18 (-2.0% for England). But Wokingham will see a whopping increase in funding of £55 (+ 3%) per dwelling.

“We have been saying for two years that the spending cuts are being unfairly loaded onto local government and then unfairly applied between different areas. But these latest figures make that unfairness even clearer and show that the Government has no interest whatsoever in listening to the voice of the less well-off parts of our country.”

It’s enough to make you weep. But of course, the one snippet of information Sir Albert failed to give us was the actual amount of Government funding handed out to Birmingham and Wokingham.

In 2013-14 Birmingham’s total formula funding amounted to £646 million, a figure that Sir Albert might justifiably describe as ‘whopping’. Wokingham, on the other hand, received a paltry £19 million.

So the notion that the Government is throwing money at Tory areas in the south simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It has always been recognised that the sheer size of Birmingham and its acute social problems necessitate very large amounts of Government grant.

Sir Albert might be astonished to learn that councils in the south of the country argue year after year that they are being treated unfairly in comparison to large cities in the Midlands and the north. Speaking as a former Wokingham Council reporter for the Berkshire Mercury, I can assure Sir Albert that the borough of Wokingham does indeed have pockets of deprivation – just like Sutton Coldfield.

It wasn’t so long ago, the late 1980s to be precise, that Labour controlled councils in the north of Warwickshire joined forces with the Tory-controlled county council to complain about an ‘unfair’ allocation of government grant. Their argument was that a Conservative government was being too generous to metropolitan areas at the expense of shire counties.

Oxfordshire County Council, Labour-led at the time, conducted a similar campaign to persuade the government to stump up more money.

Allegations of shire county underfunding have been part and parcel of the local government world from the end of the 1980s to the present day. Mr Pickles appears intent on restoring the balance, and in true Pickles fashion he doesn’t care about bad headlines.

Increasing the spending power per dwelling of Surrey by £50, Buckinghamshire by £39 and Dorset by £30 does appear on the face of it to be generous in the current climate and provides plenty of ammunition for Labour. But Sir Albert’s presentation of needy Birmingham versus leafy Wokingham is superficial and hardly does justice to what has been a long and complex debate.

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