WMN opinion: Public sector jobs are the engine-room of economy
Among campaigners for a 'smaller state' with fewer public sector employees the news today that the number of people employed by councils across Devon and Cornwall has fallen by almost 14,000 over the past four years will be a cause for celebration. They should, however, hold the champagne.
Half of the 8,000-strong reduction in employee numbers at unitary Cornwall Council, for example, has come as a result of local education authority employees becoming employees of an 'academy', thanks to the switch by many schools to academy status. All of the employees are still in the public sector, paid by the taxpayer.
Even the vast majority of the other 4,000 lost to Cornwall Council have, in the majority of cases, not found jobs with private businesses per se, but have found the roles they carried out taken over by new entities still broadly funded by the taxpayer or paid for out of the tax take, whether local or national.
And other councils have made far more modest cuts in head count. West Devon, a small authority anyway, reduced numbers by 16 over four years; Torridge now has 26 fewer staff on its books than it did in 2009. Compare those cuts with the ones made in many private businesses, where hundreds of employees have been laid off – and the much-heralded cutbacks in local Government begin to look far less a dramatic than was initially suggested would be the case.
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That is not necessarily a bad thing. The level of Government debt is falling and cutting debt was the primary reason for reducing local Government staffing levels. It was never – or should never have been – purely about cutting local government down to size for its own sake.
If the desired effect is being felt without taking big chunks out of the local council employee head count then, providing we are getting value for money, why cut? Here in the Westcountry local councils, the National Health Service and the Ministry of Defence are still significant employers. Where the Westcountry lacks a major private sector employer it needs public sector jobs; they are the engine-room of the economy, putting wages into people's pockets that helps to underpin the rest of the economy.
Of course the cuts are far from over and we may yet find they start to impact in a far more negative way in the next couple of years. There is also evidence in some quarters that the cuts made so far have had an impact on quality of service provided to taxpayers. And there is no sign that council tax will be coming down anytime soon, even as local authorities slim down. In the final analysis, however, if town hall staff lists shorten, service standards are maintained, the public spending deficit keeps falling and unemployment goes down too, the policy will be deemed a success. The secret is in ensuring that re-organisation and the privatisation of public services works, not just for local authorities but for those who use the services.