Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Uncle Eric's Christmas present

The local government settlement announced today is the usual riddle, wrapped in a mystery surrounded by an enigma. The determination by ministers to make the whole thing as unclear as possible seems to have the motive of allowing them to spin whatever line they like to a media which cannot understand it either.

The basic numbers are largely as we expected, but council staff will have to do weeks of work to be clear about precisely what some aspects mean.

The one thing every council, just like any business or household, needs is clarity. Whilst the government has talked about providing settlement figures into the future, they have made the immediate future far less certain. We don't know whether or not the threshold before a referendum is triggered might change and we don't know if towns or parishes will be subject to the referendum threshold for the first time.

The referendum threshold was introduced to replace capping. Any council proposing a council tax rise above 2% must win the approval of the public in a referendum - a referendum for which Eric Pickles sets the date and the question. Cornwall has set a provisional budget below that 2% figure, but the government is now looking at lowering the figure. This would mean Cornwall choosing either to set a different budget or be forced to hold a costly referendum where the outcome is far from certain.

We took the decision to go early with its budget in order to preserve around £7m of front line services next year. The uncertainty over the referendum threshold and other factors put these services at risk.

A small bit of good news was the recognition by the government of the additional costs of providing services in rural areas. When you add in the fact that urban councils get grants which are 50% per head higher, you get a massive degree of unfairness. But the government's recognition is a mere £9.5 million across the whole of England - and just £462,000 for Cornwall. That's welcome but, as Andrew George MP has said, chicken feed in comparison with what is needed.

I am tempted to think of Mr Pickles as Scrooge. However the Dickens character underwent a conversion as the book progresses. Today's evidence is that there is little chance of Eric Pickles ever doing so.

Instead, he is like the uninvited guest who turns up on your doorstep with a bottle of wine and then proceeds to eat and drink you out of house and home.

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