Ever wondered what it felt like to be Cllr Steve Reed, our esteemed Lambeth Leader? It's the 2011-2012 budget consultation. You have to save £80 million over the next four years. £40 million of that must be cut in 2011-20102 although you're fighting the government to prevent immediate (or frontloaded) cuts. You know that jobs will be slashed. You know that services will be be eliminated. Education will suffer. Elderly people won't receive care at home any more. Crime will rise as police services will be cut. Children's services will suffer, risking more Baby P cases. The youth budget is at risk, wiping out the good work done to prevent knife crinme. Preventative and education services will go, costing the Council more in the long run. Recycling and rubbish collection will happen less often. Peoples' calls to the Council will go unanswered for days. It sounds horrendous. What would you cut? Who is the weakest link? The real Steve Reed is seeking to protect the £5 million youth budget in a bid to prevent future youth offending. Note how the Evening Standard have used a photo of the Triangle Adventure Playground, currently at risk of eviction by Lambeth.
Thanks to a free service, You Choose, provided by You Gov, Lambeth have been able to set up a simulation so that you can try on Cllr Reed's shoes, and attain control of the budgets. Figure out how you'd make £25 million of cuts. You control the money being spent at the moment, and you're told how much save. You are given a few ways to bring in income, but these really don't amount to much. You're not allowed to raise Council Tax. The choice is yours. Each time you make a cut, you'll be told who is impacted and to what degree. I started by slashing lots of back office stuff and was warned that I couldn't sustain those cuts because Lambeth would drop below statutory levels in various areas, so I had to make frontline cuts. When you've finished with the simulator, email Lambeth Council and tell them what services you want to see protected, and where you'd place fees.
Working on a similar premise to Dostoevsky, who noted, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons", I figured that the same sentiment is true for the most vulnerable. I resolved, in my budget, to lessen cuts to children who require the intervention of social services and to preserve provision for the elderly and those who have learning disabilities... How did I do? Do you agree with me?
1. In children's services, I only cut £5.36 million (reducing the current budget by 8.4%), but I reduced provison of care to vulnerable children, introduced fees and reduced opening hours to youth centres and stooed the youth offending services. I also reduced in school support. That sounds like a large cut, but the spend on children's services is huge at £63.88 million.
2. In adult social care, I kept reductions as low as possible and similarly cut £5.74 million (reducing the current budget by 9.2%). Unfortunately, this resulted in reduced care in peoples homes, helping them to dress etc. and remain at home and reduced funding for residential day services. Again, it sounds like a large cut, but under the simulation, £62 million was spent on adult social care.
3. I decided that "Corporate services and benefits" didn't sound important so I reduced the current budget by 22%, and saved £6.75 million. Of course, this had the effect of reducing internal support severely, increasing the risk of fraud and produced "significant delays" in contacting the council. I cut the performance, policy, equalities and research to the minimum, just enough to continue statutory provision and I increased the delay in processing benefit applications (but I only delayed it, rather than cutting it to the bone). I also reduced the communication budget substantially, but that means there are less staff to focus on core campaigns.
4. Next I had to look at streets, waste, recycling and consumer protection. I reduced the current budget by 11.2%, and managed a saving of £2.74 million. I had to stop the food waste collection pilot. Our roads will be covered in pot holes because the highways are now only inspected once a year. I ceased all food premises inspections and stopped product safety checks. After that, I reduced the operational hours for the noise service. It now doesn't work on week days.
5. My next budget was libraries, sports, parks and culture. Oh dear. I'm a huge champion of libraries, so I didn't want to cut those. And cutting sport would be a mistake. I ended up cutting £2.11 million, much of it in parks, reducing that budget by 13.6%. I didn't merge any libraries. I had to restructure the sport and leisure department to deliver the same level of service at lower cost (eek, how does that work?). Culturally, we're now unable to deliver any arts development. (Argh, but remember, I was focused on reducing cuts to the children and elderly). But parks took the brunt of my cuts, since I felt that having no wardens and increasing cemetry charges and reducing tree maintenace wouldn't actually remove the parks as a resource. They could always be recovered at some later date, right?
6. Next, regeneration and enterprise. I'm afraid that took a big hit. I saved a mere £757k, but reduced the department by a shocking 24%. It's only a small department, but I was trying to preserve services for youth etc. Now, unfortunately, we will reduced investment in town centre management, local business promotion and job creation. A small price to pay, but won't the recession be slowed by the fact that we're less able to assist with job creation? I had to cut something!
7. Finally, I took a look at community safety. I slashed it by 19% (deciding that it was the police's responsibility), but it only had a small budget anyway, so I only sliced off £302k, nothing compared to the other departments. Now Lambeth is unable to deal with drug and alcohol issues, and tackle offenders. (And slashing my park rangers above isn't going to help either).
Positively, I was able to bring money in through events income (I did wonder whether there would be a department left to run the events), and through parking by £400k (ouch), but I chose not to raise fees for cultural services because that would hit sport. I also managed to save some money by working more closely with health services (but that only netted 90k) and altered the way I provided social and welfare advice. Note, I did not renegotiate Adult Social Care contracts or find efficiencies in Adult social services management costs. I thought that those sounded like they'd make the care worse. I also decided not to cut the few public toilets we'd got left. The 175k saving was barely worth making.
The electorate are rightly angry. Did I do the right thing? What would you do?
The Con Dems are cutting local council budgets, but it was under a Labour administration that we ran up the debt in the first place. Should we just keep blaming the bankers? Welcome to the Big Society.
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