When I read that DC’s mother and aunt had joined him in campaigning against cuts to Oxfordshire’s children’s services, I was unsure whether to be amused or angry and I think the result was a mixture of both. Mainly anger at DC who should know better and wry amusement that his mother and aunt should be so unworldly.
I have been there with DC when I was Leader of Oxfordshire County Council and we were contending with severe funding cuts by the then coalition government. Then it was libraries under threat and he was opposing any impact on libraries in his own constituency. We met, we talked and we found a compromise. The result is that Oxfordshire has retained all of its libraries and their opening hours remain unchanged – at the moment. Whether they will survive the current and even harder round of cuts remains to be seen. At least his mother and aunt stayed out of the debate at that time!
This time round, the cuts in central government funding are much bigger and I fear for the future of county councils. Their main service areas nowadays are children’s services, care of older and vulnerable people and highways. These are the big spending areas and they are all under huge pressure, particularly the care of older people with a rising elderly population and the impact of dementia. Bed blocking puts pressure on hospitals when councils like Oxfordshire cannot afford to place old people in care homes or to provide them with care in the home. DC should know this and so should his mother and aunt. If they want to prioritise children’s care, they need to say what else they would cut and the choice is between elderly care or highway maintenance. I have not heard them express a view and I doubt they will.
The politics of child care is complicated. Oxfordshire was one of the areas to suffer exploitation of young women by gangs of Asians and the memory of this awful discovery will be embedded in the council’s corporate memory. However, child care covers a wide range of services and service users. Some of the most articulate are middle class mums and dads looking for child care while they work so the council is right to be targeting what child care it can afford at the vulnerable and the less well off but it is the middle class who will shriek and wave their banners outside County Hall. Sadly, it is the Cameron family that will be taken in by these activists and will demand cuts are made elsewhere.
County councils are large authorities with strategic duties around transport, the economy, environmental issues and, working with the NHS, health and social care. Most county councils have slimmed down their administration and strategic functions as much as they dare and it is all too easy for DC to say “cut the administration not the front line”. I fear some county councils have pared back their structure so far that they have nowhere left to cut and I fear some will fall over ere long, being no longer able to function properly. I hope and believe Oxfordshire is resilient enough to pull through but there are some that are not.
County councils exist in two-tier areas with smaller and more local district councils. The latter are not stuffed with cash but they are nowhere near as cash strapped as the counties. Many districts sold off their council housing so have a lot of capital money in the bank and can live off this capital for years to come. Counties have no such financial cushion.
i am curious to know government’s understanding of the situation. Cameron has always thought of local government as his little local district council which is coterminous with his constituency. Oxfordshire county council contains six parliamentary constituencies and would be capable of taking a strategic view of the needs of its 1,000 square miles and 600,000 inhabitants. However, that strategic overview tends to be usurped by Westminster trying to micro-manage our country. With George Osborne’s vision of a “Northern Powerhouse” and modelled on the combining together of eleven local councils that represent greater Manchester, there is a golden opportunity for strategic councils like Oxfordshire to take a lead in promoting economic growth. The financial pincers that are emasculating strategic authorities like Oxfordshire seem to be destroying the opportunity for good strategic working at a local level. Frankly our government of England is a frightful mess, incoherent, lacking either symmetry or suitability for the local characteristics of the country. Scotland has a small number of unitary councils; so does Wales. This is what England needs but the financial strangulation of strategic councils like Oxfordshire and the apparent blindness of the Cameron family to this reality points to a lost opportunity to strengthen local democracy and accountability and to improve strategic leadership at a local level. No wonder county councils struggle to attract elected members with the strategic and intellectual skills necessary to drive economic development and strong local leadership. Perhaps this lack leads to Cameron’s apathy to strategic councils but I think it is a case of chickens and egg. You won’t get better leaders until there are councils that have the power to make a difference.