Suffer little children, when councils slash and burn

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.

18 thoughts on “Suffer little children, when councils slash and burn

  1. Pingback: Democracy, Devine and the Daily Mail – a snapshot of Scotland’s Blogosphere – Scottish Roundup

  2. You can bet George Osborne’s nearest library won’t be shut down. Mainly because it’s in the east wing of his house next to the drawing room.

  3. How do I get a thoughtful or daft picture next to my replies rather than a strange pattern?

    I’ve given up any hopes on anonymity – so much for the mysteries of cyberspace.

  4. Right, suggestions as to how to do it.

    Short term:
    Reign in vanity capital spend in the cities (Commonwealth Games, Trams, proping up failed private sector schemes). “Oh, the reputational embarrassment!” Who cares? Tough. I can think of £12m in Glasgow on two projects off the top of my head – I’ll bet there are plenty others.
    Take all payments under PFI and delay them by 28 days (or whatever doesn’t trigger penalty payments). That’s one twelth breathing space in the next financial year.

    Long term:
    Take national services and regulate them nationally with 5 or 6 sub-national bodies sharing back-office functions grouped north and south. Use the north/south split for some functions with the sub-regional bodies doing the rest – regulated from above and with representation from below via Community Councils (or equivalent) and above from MSPs.

  5. I wonder if it’s time someone started a political party to protect children from the cuts. Why should children pay for a mess caused by adults?

    • Now there’s a thought! I don’t get it either. We invest in children or our society and economy shrivels and dies.

      To be honest though, there is a big enough children’s sector that should be making running on this but the lead charity, the umbrella group, doesn’t “do” campaigning. Yet if it led and the rest of us followed we could have a huge, really resonant campaign no bother.

      And would be worth it if made councils think differently about where to wield the axe

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  7. I was perplexed by your view that moving to four day weeks in schools was in some way a positive thing. It may be “creative, thoughtful” taken in total isolation but would mean a fundamental shift in gear by the rest of society to accommodate that one change.
    Parents of school age children will be horrified at any immediate prospect of a four day school week, primarily because they know that their employer is incapable of creative and thoughtful behaviour towards their workforce without the imperative of legal direction.

  8. What is the alternative? (quiet at the back, James)

    • the alternatives, some of them, are listed in the post. Shared back room services, and privatisation of services that are currently in house that can be done more efficiently outside of councils. And when I say privatisation, I also mean give the third sector and social enterprises a shot at running them too.

      Also do we need 32 directors of education, and then another tier of 32 senior management?

      Finally in these straitened times – and the Finance Secretary has said this – focus is on statutory services first, non statutory can go. Education is a statutory service, sport, leisure, caring for and supporting disabled children and young people, children with additional support needs, libraries – all statutory. Winter festivals, christmas light switch ons, economic regeneration are not. And on economic regeneration – what are councils doing that Skills Scotland, Scottish Enterprise etc are not?

      I hope that answers your question!

  9. Sounds like an excellent set of reasons to vote against Swinney’s cuts budget, right?

    • Eh no. See my answer to Paul’s point. Swinney has with the concordat plus set out the priorities, including those for children. He has also encouraged local authorities to focus on statutory services. He cannot make them do any more – they are big grown up people paid handsomely to make responsible and effective decisions.

      Also, I don;t support control from the centre and I thought the Greens supported subsidiarity too.

  10. I agree totally with you. The lack of foresight, proper planning and general head in sand approach taken in the last few years is a damming indictment of every Cllr and Council official in Scotland.

    I would say that its not just children’s services that are affected. Older peoples services are being cut back despite every piece of evidence showing that preventative spend now saves councils money from care budgets in a few short years. Older people dont even have a National Outcome – tells you where the SNP are.

    • There are some of the holistic ones that cover older people and there are far more local outcomes and indicators for older people than there are for children (having waded my way through all 32 Single Outcome Agreements…)

      But your point is well made. Though protection of things like bus passes etc do add value to older people’s lives. And they get a better deal at Westminster with better tax personal allowances, winter fuel allowance, free TV licences etc. Families with children much less well protected at all levels.

      The Concordat was good in principle, the problem was that local authorities lacked the political will, the skills and experience, as well as the boldness to implement it. All the ones walking away from high positions with mega enhanced redundancy packages this year are partly responsible for the mess their councils are in, and we, and especially children, pay the price. It sucks.

      • Eddie, we’ve had four and a half day weeks in Edinburgh for more than eleven years! And it IS a pain because children simply cut loose and it is parents’ job to find somewhere to put them. So most that can have opted for condensed hours so they too get Friday off – same could happen with Mondays off.

        Also we are assuming that becomes parents’ role to look after them outwith school. How about this? 4 days formal education and 1 day for informal education – sport, outdoor play, art, crafts, music, drama, singing, gardening and playing. All the things that there is little time in our crowded school agenda for, and which benefit children so much.

      • Having gone through all 32 SOAs as well as the Scottish Green Book line by line and then compared to actual council expenditure there is a real difference between what the Scottish government gives councils to spend on things like older people and social work and the actual spend on same.

        North Ayrshire has admitted moving non-ring-fenced money for older people into children’s budgets other councils have done the same. The SOAs have not helped this situation. I think that the problem with the local outcomes and indicators for older people are that the starting position is that older people are a problem to be dealt with. Several of the 1st SOAs consistently highlighted an ageing population as a problem without anything positive to say about older people.

        I do have a real problem when the cuts to services (and changes to benefits) are alleged to have a lesser impact on older people than other sections of society. It simply isnt true.

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