Like Glen, I haven’t written a post for this site for months. The reasons for this are multiple but can broadly be summed up as child, work and chicken-ness. The first two are fairly self-explanatory; as the amount of time and mental energy spent on each of them increased the amount available for blogging and thinking about interesting things to write decreases.
The latter point – that of my general chicken-ness – stems from a combination of a lack of anonymity (gone are the good old days) and the fact that my work now leads me slap bang into the middle of many of the controversies of local government in 2014.
If you are non-anonymous and right in the middle of things the two options for writing available to you are fairly unattractive. Firstly, you could play the renegade and question the actions of your local authority, or local government in general. Unless you can back this up with action in the workplace, or handle it very sensitively, this is a quick way to bring trouble upon the heads of your employers and is unattractive. In my case, it would also mean decrying my own work - which would be particularly disingenuous. The second option is to use the blog to try and make sense, and defend, the work I am doing and the rationale for it. But this isn’t my role either and there is a danger of being the man who doth protest too loudly; especially when there are local residents, and possibly politicians, who would find my arguments to be disagreeable.
I describe the above as chicken-ness because both arguments are overcome-able but nonetheless the caution exists and I have found myself not blogging.
However, like Glen, I do miss it and thus when I found myself staring at a computer screen with a spare hour or so I thought I’d try and craft something that looked back at 2014 and peeked forward too.
2014 was, in many ways, the year in which the penny dropped about local authority finances. Despite Kris Hopkins’ brave defence of Government spending cuts – which basically consisted of bad maths (1.8% - really?), council reserves and local government being akin to the boy who cried wolf – there seemed to be a greater recognition that services are about to decline and decline badly.
Andy Burnham referenced social care cuts when talking about the A&E crisis, local government reform featured in the Scottish referendum debate and the local government spending announcement was the lead story on multiple news outlets this month.
However, I do wonder if this is a bit too little too late for local government.
I mention the boy who cried wolf as I think it is applicable here. Every year since 2010 councils have argued that the cuts are putting public services at risk and every year we’ve sort of muddled through; indeed, in many cases we've done better than muddled through and protected valuable public services even whilst our budgets have been slashed. Indeed, as Kris Hopkins pointed out council reserves (however dreadful a measure this is of anything) have actually gone up during this time. This continued refrain starts to challenge the public’s credulity and makes it difficult to be believed – even when the Government figures are specifically disavowed by CIPFA – a body of accountants!
And yet; if local government is the boy who cried wolf and is therefore no longer believed when they spell out how bad things are going to be let us remember one thing – the boy who cried wolf was eventually eaten.
The next few lines of this post should involve me trying to explain the cuts that are going to hit my authority in the next three years, the impact of these cuts on real people and the challenges we face in delivering them. But that’s not the story for today; theoretical cuts are not going to cut it in the pantheon of public debate. The fact that we are projecting the future through our work does not the future make.
Until the public see the wolf (as they are currently seeing with A&E services) the cuts will be allowed to continue – if only because no-one has thought of anything better to replace them with.
This leaves us with the largest of challenges – on the one hand we need to make it clear how bad the cuts are and the impact they will have on real people and the services they use. On the other hand we need to work as hard as possible to make the cuts as painless as we can. In effect we are both crying wolf and running from the wolf simultaneously.
No wonder the public are confused and the DCLG’s narrative dominant.
And this is what leaves me confused as we enter 2015. One the one hand I want to stand on the highest mountain and scream at the top of my voice:
‘Look at that wolf – it’s huge and it’s coming for us all’
And on the other hand I marvel at the ingenuity of the human race and particularly the people in local government I work with, and wonder whether once more we might just be able to out-run the wolf and make it to the end of this batch of austerity – if that ever happens – bruised but essentially unscathed.
It is of course possible that both of the above scenarios will happen simultaneously – we might, on the basis of our ingenuity and the resilience of our residents, survive but the State might be so fundamentally changed that it represents (to continue our stretched analogy) a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
As 2015 kicks off the potential for all three scenarios stretches before the sector and as an officer the fact that there are still options open to us excites me. I’m still worried about our collective future and less certain about where everything might lead than I have been in many years but the hope is still there.
This might be naivety, my inability to recognise the evidence right in front of my face, or just the optimistic foolishness of a new year but I’m not quite ready to climb the mountain and wave my hands yet – it doesn’t mean the wolf isn’t close; it’s just that I still fancy our chances of outrunning it.