WMN opinion: Rural councils must be treated fairly by Pickles
There is nothing new about Conservative-run Governments dictating to local councils. Mrs Thatcher famously did it by rate-capping authorities she believed were squandering money raised in local taxes; John Major kept up the pressure. Now David Cameron's Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is squeezing local councils by drastically restricting the grant aid to local authorities while penalising them if they try to make up the difference with council tax hikes. And what adds insult to injury, so far as local authority leaders in our region are concerned, is that he claims the cuts amount to an average of no more than 1.7 % in local councils' "spending power", thereby suggesting that any councils which complain are failing to do their bit to bring down the deficit.
We know that there are many taxpayers who will sympathise with Mr Pickles' insistence that bringing the nation's unsustainable deficit under control remains the single biggest priority for this parliament and probably the next. No one who has seen council tax bills rise over the past decade will argue against the need for a period of stability. Few will argue with Mr Pickles when he says that local authorities should hold down the pay of senior officers and make the best use they can of all available resources. It is, after all, what private business and individuals are doing. Why should local councils be exempt?
But if most people accept that cutbacks and a period of frugality are essential, far fewer in rural areas like Devon and Cornwall believe that they should bear the brunt of the austerity measures. So it is no wonder a backlash is looming. In Devon they believe the cuts affecting the county are more than double Mr Pickles' estimate, amounting to some 3.6 %. In Cornwall they are worried that all the smoke and mirrors has left the real figures difficult to pin down.
The fact that the most deeply rural councils are facing cutbacks closer to 5.2% than Mr Pickles promised 1.7% is behind the creation of the pressure group "Sparse" – Sparsity Partnership for Authorities delivering rural services. So far Westcountry councils have not pledged themselves to join. It may only be a matter of time, however, before the dissent brewing among our local authorities boils over. And these are councils made up, for the most part, of formerly loyal Conservative and Lib Dems. Many of the authorities now facing the deepest cuts are in true blue heartlands. They are supporters of the Government's austerity package; the vast majority have held council tax rises down to zero in recent years and, in a number of cases, have put into practice Mr Pickles's recommendations to share senior offices posts and work together on providing services. They do not deserve to be patronised by Pickles; nor do they deserve to be left so short of funds they have to cut vital services. Let's hope the Government is listening; We are, after all, supposed to be in this together.