Central government wants local councils to be imaginative in their budget planning – but reading the lengths our local authority is going to in order to make the dwindling sums add up, it feels less like flexible thinking and more like a tortuous game of Twister.
Of course, it isn’t a game by any stretch of the imagination (or budget), and what’s more worrying is that this is only year two out of three of £47m of government cuts. And who’s to say, after eight consecutive years of reductions, that more aren’t to follow? You wouldn’t bet against it.
Southwark has already been resorting to spending its reserves, which currently stand at £56m. The report states that £21m was used in the previous financial year, with a further £18m raid projected for the current one. You could argue that it’s better to use reserves, rather than appeal for handouts – and to a degree this is right. We all like to save, but when the rainy day arrives, you have to spend – and that day has certainly arrived.
We say to a degree because an emergency reserve must always be held back, as the word itself suggests. If you don’t have any reserve, and there’s a crisis, you’re in real trouble. So we cannot continue to enjoy council services of a certain level that are dependent on the use of reserves each year. It’s simply unsustainable.
To read about cuts to education budgets, the council planning to do the ‘minimum’ with transport services for people in care, of reductions to personal budgets for social care, is depressing indeed. As we’ve argued before, on the face of it these might look like savings, but they are nothing of the sort. Inferior education means reduced life opportunities, which means less wealth creation. Keeping vulnerable people isolated and with less support means more ill-health and depression, with more having to be spent in the long run. And it also raises real questions about the kind of society we want to be living in, where local government can’t even afford properly to look after vulnerable people.