My Councillor Experience

June 23, 2011 at 11:23 am / by

Here’s an article I wrote for the Young Fabian magazine Anticipations about my experience of being a councillor.

Having campaigned endlessly to get elected as a councillor because I want to help people, it now feels like I’m doing exactly the opposite. I got elected in May last year and was put in the cabinet as the lead member for culture. Within a few months, the pressure on local government budgets became obvious. The cuts dictated from national government meant that we had to outline savings to reduce our overall budget by £83m over the next three years. I was told to model a 20 – 25% cut over the next three years across my culture budget of 14 million pounds. The largest bulk of my budget covers the libraries and, therefore, I have to take £2 million out of my £8 million libraries fund.

The government’s solution seems to partly revolve around blaming local councils and partly engage in Big Society rhetoric. If the Big Society means more collective action, it is something I want to engage with especially if it is a way to rescue valued services. But how can we be expected to build a Big Society when the government is undermining the main vehicle, local government, which will deliver it?

For the first year I’ve made careful decisions about back office management costs, stock ordering and transportation costs. This has taken out £400 000 in efficiency savings. These are savings which will not affect front line services. However next year, I need to cut a further £1.2 million pounds and regardless of what Eric Pickles reiterates constantly, you simply cannot make that kind of saving by cutting overheads. By persisting with this flawed argument, government ministers either betray a complete ignorance of managing a council budget, or they are engaging in a manipulative ploy to transfer blame onto local councillors.

The main difficulty facing councillors is the communication to local residents that these cuts are not our decisions. Camden councillors made a decision to display a plain poster with the text ‘National government spending cuts mean tough decisions for Camden’s future’ across 52 sites throughout Camden. The strap line is the link to the Camden website which included a new section to increase public understanding of the financial challenge. Texts and graphs are shown to inform residents about how the council is funded, the scale of the budget deficit and how the funding shortfall will be met.

Even though this is within the publicity code, it is factual and it’s not party political, the government raised objections to local councils using such poster campaigns to communicate with their residents. Clearly, such communication methods weakens their mandate of constantly off loading blame on to councillors.

An example of an empty policy that puts the unfair onus on local councillors is the government’s announcement that it wants councils in England to hold a public debate when deciding whether to pay their staff salaries of more than £100,000. Naturally I’m in favour of making councils more efficient. I never thought I’d hear myself say these words but I do agree with Eric Pickles that we need to cut the salary of senior council officers. However, cutting chief exec pay will not make up for the funding fallout in our council. Even if we did save money, it will not come close to matching the sum of money that we are being asked to cut. There are 246 local govt chief executives in the UK. Halving their pay would amount to just 0.35% of the £6.5bn funding gap faced by local government in 2011/12.

Ironically, the government endorses the concept of the Big Society but seems bent on destroying existing community infrastructure that is the vital prerequisite for creating it. Of course I want to empower communities but how will the Big Society come into being if the cuts are frontloaded?

The nature and speed of these cuts has left me struggling to find time to implement ideas such as the community asset transfer of some libraries in Camden. I effectively have to make a decision by June this year with the changes coming into effect by the end of this year in order to meet national government targets.

How do the Tories think that this is enough time to set up the structure for the Big Society? In order to transfer a library to a community organisation, certain practical aspects need to be considered. I need to sort out legal documents, the tendering process, health and safety laws (especially if it’s something like operating the mobile library vehicle), HR administration, training and more. I need to dedicate time to building the Big Society to ensure it is a viable one.

The other problem with the culture budget is that a lot of services are discretionary rather than statutory. This makes the choice of cutting services even more difficult because benefits derived from cultural services, to paraphrase Philip Pullman, are unquantifiable. How do you put a price on the effect a local library has on a young Somali mother and her two children? It’s the only chance she has to speak English and the only interaction she has with people her age. How do you quantify the benefit of the all girls football team that runs in the summer? To what extent does it affect obesity rates, confidence levels and mental well being? What does the small local theatre mean to the elderly man whose depression has decreased ever since he started participating in the weekly acting classes? And how do we quantify the cost of that to the social care budget?

The truth is that local councillors are desperate to maintain local services and avoid making cuts. They are willing to work on delivering the Big Society if that’s the only option. But you can’t crush the roots of the Big Society and expect foot soldiers on the ground to deliver it effectively.