A conundrum like no other

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THERE Is every likelihood that George Osborne and other senior Tories will dismiss Keith Wakefield’s grim warning about the scale of council cuts emanating from the Autumn Statement because he is an “old school” leader of a Labour-controlled town hall who is opposing the Government’s agenda on grounds of political dogma.

This would be mistaken. Leeds is not alone as it contemplates the next phase of efficiency savings. Its experience is shared by local authorities across the North and it would be wrong to characterise these difficulties along party political lines – some Conservative-controlled town halls have comparable challenges.

Inevitably, and more so ahead of a general election which is too close to call, there will be entrenchment on both sides – the Conservatives are committed to a smaller state while Labour is committed to protecting key public services in spite of the budget deficit. Yet these deepening divisions will not answer the long-term questions. What should be the role of councils? Communities Secretary Eric Pickles does little to help by calling on councils to slim down and be answerable their own communities while simultaneously micro-managing their approach to bin collections and car parking from his office in London.

And then there is the spiralling cost of care. The volume of high-profile abuse scandals means town halls will inevitably have to play a more active role in protecting society’s most vulnerable youngsters. Yet, at the opposite end of the age spectrum, the care needs of the elderly are escalating each year, and it is local authorities – rather than the Department of Health – who are expected to pick up the bill. For, until there is clarity about the expected role of councils, it will be even more difficult for them to attempt to plan for the future with the efficiency expected of them by taxpayers.

The apprentices

Schools and business link vital

IT should not matter whether it is the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats who take the credit for the creation of two million apprenticeship places today – this is a coalition success story and both parties should be applauded for their commitment to tackle youth unemployment.

Yet, despite the welcome progress that has been made since 2010, the number of Neets – young people not in education, employment or training – still lags behind comparable countries as the Institute of Public Policy Research think-tank launches a major report into the subject.

It makes two profound points. First, there does need to be greater clarity about the role of education for teenagers aged from 14 to 19. While GCSEs and A-levels will be route followed by many, it is clear there needs to be better structures in place for the less academic. If they’re allowed to drift, there is an increased likelihood that they will be a long-term burden to the welfare system.

Second, there is scope for a much stronger relationship between schools and local employers. Not only can the input of business leaders help to make the curriculum more relevant for a global and digital economy, but guest lecturers and so on can help to re-enforce the message that education and skills are critical to a young person’s future prospects.

As such, coalition infighting – and the forthcoming election – must not detract from this issue’s urgency and the challenge of training the 30 per cent of children who do not meet the Government’s basic GCSE benchmarks. That is the number which now needs to drive future policy.

Zero tolerance

Drink-driving enforcement laws

EVEN though attitudes towards drink-driving have shifted markedly since the 1970s, it is a sobering statistic that nearly one in five motorists have not hesitated to get behind the wheel of their car to drive to work in an intoxicated state the morning after a night of heavy drinking.

It highlights the importance of round-the-clock spot checks by the police – the responsible driver should have absolutely nothing to fear from this – rather than so much emphasis being placed on the effectiveness of the annual Christmas crackdown when the reckless and irresponsible are more likely to succumb to temptation and put lives at risk because of their contempt for the laws of the road.

Yet this is also one area of policy where England should not be afraid to follow Scotland’s example and cut the legal limit still further so motorists understand, once and for all, that the only safe amount to drink before driving is zero.