The Chancellor’s recent Autumn Statement felt different. It felt big. It was certainly chock-full of announcements. But it can take weeks for the mists to clear and the real impact to be understood. We are not there yet so what I am about to say is hedged with caveats and qualifications, the biggest of which is that we still need to see the detail of the local government settlement which usually arrives mid-December.
But, on the face of it, the spending review leaves local authorities in a slightly better place. The axe is still going to fall, of course, but with a bit of luck it may now do so below the knee.
In Kensington and Chelsea we anticipate that the order of savings we will require each year will perhaps be about a third smaller than in recent years. That still leaves a sizeable annual figure to find which will not be easy.
Remember, austerity started in 2010-11 and since then our budget has fallen by about 18 per cent in real terms. Those who say there is still a lot of fat in local government just don’t know what they are talking about quite frankly.
Even in Kensington and Chelsea, which started from an unusually strong financial position, we didn’t think we could keep going for more than another year or so without having to make some really painful and very obvious cuts.
After the Chancellor’s statement, however, we can see that it might be possible to do better than this. There will still have to be some difficult decisions and here and there the fabric will be so stretched that the odd hole will appear, but in the main our good services could survive. I hope that proves to be the case and that by 2019 or so public spending will stabilise.
Personally, I am not anti-austerity. As a country we currently owe about £1.5 trillion. Next year our interest repayments alone will be £51 billion. That simply has to be tackled, and especially when you consider that our defence budget is just £28 billion.
But, when austerity is over, I hope the public and perhaps even the odd politician will remember that it was Britain’s local authorities that took the hit so that health, defence, education and now policing too, didn’t have to.
And perhaps local government will at last get a little credit for being one of the more efficient and capable parts of the state.