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Thursday, 21 October 2010

It's all a question of priorities

I was just discussing the Spending Review with some Lib Dem friends, and one thing that came up is local government. It has to be said: there are many things that local councils do that are nice to do, but don't need to be done - and those are the things that can be cut now. To be frank, some of those things were things that the public never necessarily wanted done in the first place - not that they were ever really asked, in some cases, although they were paying for it all with their Council Tax, one of the least progressive taxes imaginable.

One Labour council organised a Sustainability Day on a Saturday morning, with a lavish buffet lunch afterwards - perish the thought that people might have left the event at lunchtime and made their own arrangements for lunch. It turns out that there is such a thing as a free lunch after all. I attended the event as I was then working for Thames Water, and I was more than happy to be there, but - nobody else was really there, apart from a few, well-off, well-educated, older people from the better-off bit of the borough. There was a video message from the borough's Labour MP (no mention of the borough's other MP, of course, because she's not Labour). The main guest speaker was a well-established broadcaster, whose fee to attend may well have been thousands - at the expense of local Council Taxpayers.

And what was achieved? Very little. Just a desultory discussion about sustainability, mostly focused on issues that the Council has no control over anyway, followed by that very nice free lunch. Sorry, but this was a waste of time and money - I don't resent going, for work, but I do resent a council having a whole department to do things like this at local people's expense, and then claiming that it does not have enough money to pay for crucial frontline services! It's all a question of what you choose to spend the money on. So, although the impact of the CSR on local government will be tough, I can think of lots of things, at lots of councils, that could be stopped tomorrow - because they are nice to have, but don't really add value in this time of national debt reduction.

Meanwhile, Danny Alexander, the (Lib Dem) Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has emailed Lib Dem supporters about the CSR and I thought people might find this interesting, so here is what he wrote:

When we came into office, we inherited an economy that was on the brink. With the largest budget deficit in Europe and no plan for tackling it, Britain faced huge economic risks. These could only be dealt with by a clear plan to deal rapidly with the worst financial position this country has faced for generations.

On Wednesday, we set out that plan. And while the scale and pace of the action we need to take is unavoidable, we can choose how we do it. The Spending Review sets out those choices: to spread the burden fairly, to promote economic growth, and to invest in the life chances of our children. These are hard choices that affect millions of people, but they are the right choices to set our country back on the road to prosperity.

We have spread the burden fairly by protecting the key services that the most vulnerable in our society rely on. Social Care has been given a funding boost worth £2bn, the NHS and schools have been protected and our plans for social housing will deliver up to 150,000 new affordable homes.

We have promoted future fairness through a £7 billion ‘fairness premium’ that will support improving the life chances of our poorest children from their first pair of shoes to their first pay packet.

We have promoted future growth by giving the go ahead to key transport projects that will unlock economic potential in every part of the country. We have also delivered on a Green Investment Bank that will kick start green investment and generate jobs.

And we are pushing forward with radical reform. Our decentralisation agenda will reduce the number of central government grants from 90 to fewer than 10. With the exception of schools and public health, ring-fences on council spending will disappear, giving local authorities much greater flexibility. We will deliver welfare reforms that simplify the system and make work pay. And our criminal justice reforms will roll out the community justice programmes that were pioneered by Liberal Democrats in local government.

Yes, it’s going to be tough, and everyone will make a contribution, but those with the broadest shoulders will bear the biggest burden. That’s why we’ve reduced taxes for the low paid, and increased them for the richest. It’s why we introduced a banking levy – and we’ve made it our aim to extract the maximum sustainable tax revenues from the banks that got us into this mess.

The worst thing to do would be to burden future generations with the debts that Labour left us. We have made the tougher choice, no doubt, but we should be proud of the way we have taken responsibility and we have done the right thing.

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