So here we are again, engaged in the annual charade that is the management of expectations. This is how it works.
Council departments are asked to put forward proposals for a certain percentage of savings. Officials sharpen their pencils, furrow their brows and come up with a list that make most elected members baulk. At the top will be listed the worst possible options – closing public toilets, privatising home care, shutting libraries, cutting the school week to four days. All the things, in fact, that the public are likely to get hot under the collar about.
The local press (and occasionally the national media) invariably find out about the list and lurid headlines follow. Officials are sent away to think again and come up with a much more palatable list, a shave here, a wee sleight of hand there and elected members can breathe a sigh of relief, express their dismay at making any cuts at all but vote the budget through with a relatively clear conscience and be out of the meeting in time for lunch.
Only this year it’s different. This year, the worst case scenarios are likely to be coming to a community near you. On Thursday, when most local authorities set their budgets for 2011-12, they will slash and burn.
And children will suffer more than most.
The prosaic reason for this is because education and social work dominate the local government landscape and take up a considerable chunk of available funds. But we must also factor in the squandering of the years of plenty and a largely indolent approach to budgeting.
We’ve had four years of chat about reforming public services, but not a single backroom service – finance, communications, HR, legal – has been merged. Yet, from this summer, classroom assistants, whose sterling work in supporting teachers and especially children with additional support needs, will practically cease to exist.
Not a single service that could be more efficiently provided by the private sector – printing, graphic design, architects and the like – has been removed from the bloat that exists in local authorities. But outdoor education, summer playschemes, sport and leisure concessions for children, playparks, active school co-ordinators – all the services, in short, that add real value to the quality of our children’s lives – will go.
Worse, essential services for the most vulnerable children in our society – therapy, respite care, foster care placements, family support – will be pared back. The cost of school dinners will go up, the value of clothing grant vouchers will be frozen. Bookstart, music education, funding for playgroups, family centres, parenting support, youth work, school nurses and swimming lessons will all, to some degree, be at risk. The double whammy of cutting grants and increasing the cost of council lets will do for scouts, cubs, football, judo, pipe bands, youth clubs, brownies and guides.
“Our children have the best start in life and are ready to succeed”. “We have improved the life chances for children, young people and families at risk”. “We have tackled the significant inequalities in our society”.
These are admirable aspirations. They might be key Scottish Government strategic objectives but expect them to be conveniently sidelined when budget decisions are made this week. Sadly, councils cut where they think they can get away with it. Harassed, working parents or disengaged, dysfunctional families are less likely than pensioners to pack meetings to protest.
Moreover, the worst case options, such as those mooted by North Ayrshire council to cut the school week to four days or raise the school starting age to six, are exactly the kind of creative, thoughtful proposals we should be debating if we are serious about reshaping our public services to meet a much leaner, meaner financial future. These are the sorts of long term shifts that might deliver real success for our children and our society’s wellbeing.
But no matter how bad it gets, we ain’t seen nothing yet. The savings being passed this week will only take local government spending back to 2005 levels. We may be standing on the edge of an abyss, but it will be at least 2013 before we topple over.
“Our children are successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens.”
Not in our lifetime. Not if they are made to suffer the worst of Thursday’s budget cuts.