IT is one thing when a Labour leader of a northern council, or even the BBC, dramatises the scale of the public service cuts implied by George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. People would say that I’m bound to say that.
It is something else entirely when three of the most respected authorities on public finances do so. The Institute of Fiscal Studies warns of “colossal” cuts. The Government’s own Office of Budget Responsibility projects levels of public spending not seen since the 1930s. And the National Audit Office warns that Ministers are unaware of the scale and impact of the grant cuts to local councils already made: 43 per cent in the case of Leeds.
This week I will have to consult upon further brutal cuts to our own budget that will mean more closures, reductions in front line services and the loss of more jobs. These are on top of the £470m cuts to West Yorkshire councils that have already seen us have to close libraries, hostels, sports centres, day centres, community centres and youth clubs, and shed thousands of jobs from the public sector workforce. I certainly didn’t come into public service to oversee such changes, but unfortunately the scale and pace of the cuts imposed by Westminster means we have little choice.
Local government is being hit much harder than the Government. Our pay bill has gone down 12 per cent while Whitehall’s has risen six per cent. The last time I looked there were the same number of Whitehall departments as there were in 2010.
We’ve also made sure in Leeds that we haven’t just dropped our heads against the relentless financial pressure but have instead set a clear vision. The thinking of the Commission we launched two years ago is being implemented not just here but in many other councils.
It sets out a pivotal role for councils that are smaller in size but bigger in influence over jobs and homes, infrastructure fit for the 21st century and forging a new social contract about the revised level of public services we can provide local people. We’ve translated those words into actions in Leeds, building a music arena so good that it was voted best new venue in the world, and enabling developments like the hugely-successful Trinity shopping centre, Kirkstall Forge, Thorpe Park and the like.
We have doubled the number of apprentices, helped more older people live longer in their own homes and safely reduced the number of children who are looked after by the local state.
There is more to come with the largest John Lewis due to open in Leeds in 2016 adjacent to a refreshed Kirkgate market and an opportunity to rebuild our city centre around the new HS2 station that will be one of the largest regeneration projects in Europe. We’re becoming more like the civic entrepreneurs who founded local government.
The problem now is that there is a limit to what we can do and we are now close to it. If further cuts are needed in public spending of the scale advocated by George Osborne, and the Government imposes the same formula that hits northern councils hardest, the IFS is right that public services will change “beyond recognition”.
The social care system that allows the NHS to breathe cannot survive a further 30 per cent cut which renders any ring fence of health spending powerless. Children spend 80 per cent of their time outside school and eliminating youth services, support for families struggling to avoid debt and help for young people to find jobs will make an education ring fence meaningless. Get ready for more cases of vulnerable young people being exploited, libraries and theatres being closed, and paying for basic services like waste collection – if you can afford it.
Surely we can share services and senior management across councils, reduce bureaucracy and use our reserves to solve these problems? Well we are already doing those things, saving millions of pounds for local taxpayers. Think about it: if you legally have to balance a budget each year, you have to ensure there’s enough to meet unexpected demands if it’s a difficult winter or the demand for statutory services you have to provide goes up.
The only way through this challenge is to share the burden more equitably across the country and release local areas to deliver growth, an approach which local MPs Ed Balls and Hilary Benn are rightly committed to. We need more ability to shape our own destiny locally.
Nine decisions out of every 10 that affect public spending in Leeds are taken in Whitehall or Brussels. Yet we have shown that we can put aside old rivalries in West Yorkshire and York and get decisions three times faster and with twice the impact of national programmes on job creation.
When councils and businesses unite, the Tour de France has shown that the sky is the limit. Rather than imposing structures on the people who recently voted against mayors in Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, the Government should devolve genuine power now over the housing, skills and transport programmes we can deliver more effectively for the UK taxpayer. A Northern Powerhouse cannot flourish without a strong, confident and empowered Yorkshire at its heart.
Keith Wakefield is the Labour leader of Leeds Council.