An ancient maxim states, “hubris is invariably followed by nemesis”. I can’t think of a better recent monument to hubris than Northamptonshire County Council’s new office building.
It cost £53 million and opened only last October; now, the council is effectively bankrupt. 21 out of the area’s 36 libraries are likely to be closed. It has even been suggested that the council should be abolished altogether.
It’s easy to look at what happened to our neighbour, shake our heads at their plight, cross our fingers, and hope that its travails aren’t replicated elsewhere.
However, Westminster has cut spending so deeply that it is unlikely to be the last example. The County Councils Network estimates county councils will see a 93 per cent reduction in their biggest government support grant between 2016 and 2020; since 2010, central government funding for local authorities has fallen by half.
Northamptonshire’s current council was elected on the promise of freezing council tax rates: this only added impetus to their eventual crash.
Given this, Northamptonshire may very well be the proverbial canary in the coalmine. Peterborough City Council has recently had to approve an eye watering tax rise of six per cent; this represents a 15 per cent total increase over the past three years.
Nevertheless, there is a huge deficit, a gap of £43.5 million until 2021; furthermore, due to demographic changes, there are increased demands on social care for the elderly, and to provide school places, never mind the funds required to ensure that our city doesn’t continue to drown in fly tipping.
As long as I have been involved in politics, I’ve heard people use the phrase “efficiency savings”. Since this present government came to power, I’ve also heard the phrase “do more with less” regularly stated as an instruction. At a certain point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in: there are only so many efficiencies to be gained, there is only so far you can extend the idea of making do with less.
Northamptonshire County Council may be a leading example of this: their extravagance as exemplified by their new offices aside, they outsourced nearly all of their services, a move labelled “Next Generation”, in order to save money. However, hard experience has shown that private profit and public service are difficult to pair; Northamptonshire couldn’t. It’s unlikely that if the cuts continue at their present rate that anywhere else, no matter how well managed, will be able to do it either.
It’s time to be honest: we cannot underfund our public services and merely hope for the best. Central government needs to look again at how it funds local councils.