As with all local councils up and down the country, Durham County Council currently finds itself forced to make huge savings as a result of savage and unprecedented government grant cuts, for our residents amounting to more than £65 million in 2011-12 with at least £60 million more to come over the next two to three years.
Yet at the same time as we have, at the behest of the Tory-led government, endured months of appallingly difficult budget decisions, far from sympathising and supporting, that same government has instead been denigrating us. It has pumped out myth upon myth as to ‘alternative’ means of budget reduction, generously distributed courtesy of a variety of compliant tabloid newspapers. What of course links these myths is that they are all complete nonsense, not standing up to a moment’s proper scrutiny.
At the top of the mythometer has to be the inspired why do you need to make any cuts when you are hoarding such huge reserves? Now there are many answers to this – the most obvious being that most council’s reserves would not even cover the cuts imposed on us in the first few months. Also many reserves cannot be touched anyway as they rightly belong to schools. What’s more, reserves are there to cover the unexpected – such as last year’s heavy snowfalls – and most depressingly, reserves are now being used by many councils to cover redundancy payments as we are forced to reduce staff numbers. It is of course also the case that reserves can only be used once, unlike the cuts which are repeated (and get bigger) year on year. But one other way of countering this nonsense is this: what family or individual, lucky enough to have some savings and knowing that the bad times are here for years to come, would immediately spend all of them?
So let us move on to myth number two. This is the one around the pay of chief officers, with the councillors allowances variant. Now this is where ministers start craftily playing on the fact that some people have a tendency to glaze-over when faced with numbers, and as treat a special responsibility allowance of £3 thousand the same way as a bankers bonus of £3 million. But let us be quite clear. Whether it is reducing the salary of a chief executive by 10% or Councillors allowances by 5%, or both, the impact is negligible. In the case of Durham it would cover less than 0.1% of the saving needed over the next four years.
Myth number three comes courtesy of our Liberal friends, though strangely enough this one has gone a bit quiet since early May. It is, with apologies for plagiarising various editions of Focus, why are you making cuts when Lib Dem councils like Newcastle, Hull, Birmingham (delete as appropriate) are not making any? Now, very sadly, it is at this point that the myth making machine ran into a few problems with the electorate – and in Birmingham’s case, the courts. The myth was again, of course, utter bunk – just ask anyone in those three cities.
What connects all of these myths (and we have had them all in Durham) is that they are all simplistic one liners, almost designed to fit a tabloid headline. And of course they don’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny.
That is not their purpose – the design is purely to create a smokescreen and try to blame Labour councils for the most savage government spending cuts in a generation, probably ever. And unfortunately the sad fact is that some people across the country do believe these myths – I have the letters (and not all of them from Lib Dems) to prove it. Indeed I believe that these myths are an integral reason as to why opinion polls consistently show that a third of the public believe ‘the cuts do not go far enough’.
So how do we counter this constant supply of misinformation? The only thing we can do is to constantly remind everyone exactly who is responsible for these cuts. We do in Durham – if possible several times a day. Because only when people connect the cuts on the ground with the government responsible for them will we have any chance of turning the tide of public opinion.
Cllr. Simon Henig is Leader of Durham County Council
- Is the Green Deal a done deal? Luke Hildyard on how councils can play a key role in making it work: http://t.co/Bjy4KiB7 2012/06/08
- Leader of the LGA Labour Group Dave Sparks on Labour councillors delivering for our local communities: http://t.co/zVeE1P2F 2012/05/21