Your say / Politics

Closing the council’s financial black holes

By Craig Cheney , Tuesday Aug 2, 2016

As the newly appointed Bristol City Council cabinet member with responsibility for finance, I am more focused than ever on the national and local economy and what it means for Bristol’s citizens.

So, at the risk of starting with a history lesson, I want to share my own understanding of the challenges the local budget has set for all of us and our options to resolve them.

It is still very much “the economy, stupid” when it comes down to it and people judge their lives and prosperity on the money in their pocket and their needs. This is why our new mayor, Marvin Rees, placed so much emphasis on the local economy, on decent jobs and on building affordable houses during his election campaign.  

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As for that brief history, it was April 26, 2009, when the then-leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, David Cameron, announced to a Conservative Party gathering that the “age of austerity” was upon us.

This was the future Prime Minister launching a policy that determined the core direction of travel for his governments for the next six years. In national government terms, austerity was defined as the desire to “achieve cyclically-adjusted current balance by the end of the rolling five-year forecast balance”.

So, looking at that definition, it’s not surprising that millions of us have no actual idea what austerity ever really meant to us. It also explains the criticisms leveled at different Labour chancellors; that my party never really got to grips with an alternative narrative for our opposition.

It also means that despite the successes of the many pressure and campaign groups that anti-austerity spawned, nobody ever successfully motivated the mass public mood against it.

What is clear is that from that speech in 2009, Mr Cameron won two successive elections – one marginal and one outright. He shaped or captured the national mood, depending how you look at it and the Tory spin doctors consistently and effectively touted the phrases “the country’s credit card is maxed out” and “we have to get our house in order” to connect with voters. And connect they did.  

The truth is that austerity meant cuts to services and a lot of the pain has really impacted through local government. Cuts to services have meant the clearest effect has been on the most vulnerable in our society – and it is those that rely heavily on local government services that can really tell you the story on austerity.

But of course, David Cameron has gone and his successor, Theresa May, has made her initial speech about withdrawing the fiscal rules and putting austerity proposals in the Number 10 shredder.

“While it is absolutely vital that the government continues with its intention to reduce public spending and cut the budget deficit, we should no longer seek to reach a budget surplus by the end of the parliament” she said, in her first major speech.

To defend the shift, the PM and her new chancellor have suggested these “are non-normal times”, a direct reference to Brexit and the potential significant impact on the UK economy.

However, before getting too relaxed about the end of austerity, look closely at the comments. Although the media excited themselves with what they see as a new direction for the government, the truth is the government remains fully committed to continue to shrink the state and reduce public spending.

That connection brings us right back to where I started, the budget for Bristol, the local council services and the massive black hole in our finances. And, most importantly, what are we going to do about it?

Here in Bristol, since that original Cameron speech, we have made savings of over £100 million. We now have the biggest challenge yet of saving at least £60 million over the next three years.

Part of George Osborne’s plans included the removal of the Revenue Support Grant (the government support for local services which, along with the council tax, is a large part of the revenue for the council) with the ability of the council to keep local business rates. There are no easy solutions to plugging this gap and we will be forced to make some difficult decisions in order to protect vital services whilst rethinking others. 

With this in mind, we have launched the new budget simulator which can be found at http://bristol.budgetsimulator.com, so you can take an look yourself, set the city’s priorities as you see them, and solve the thorny challenge of setting the councils budget for yourself.

This isn’t a referendum, but we will listen and if you find a solution you are happy with, let us know at [email protected]. I promise you, we will look at all responses.

Craig Cheney is the mayor’s cabinet member responsible for finance. He is also a Hillfields ward councillor. He’s on Twitter here.

 

Read more opinion pieces here.

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