Friday, 17 December 2010

An unbalanced bit of spin?

There is much chatter around about a cabinet reshuffle. The suggestion is that in the New Year David Laws will be brought back and various names of those who might be axed have been floated. Amongst the names of those who are 'at risk' are Philip Hammond at Transport and Eric Pickles.

Now judging by my (unscientific) poll of Tory councillors Eric Pickles would get the nod. He is generally seen to be not up to the job and even for those who accept the arguments for deficit reduction, his enthusiastic adoption  of the 'front loading' of spending cuts for local government is seen as an example of his failure. Equally annoying is the bizarre bit of 'spin' (because that is what it is) of inventing a new measure of local government funding: the total spending power. This, of course, confuses people and makes comparisons difficult. Silly, silly, man.

As a party game we used to devise lists of who was the best and worst  politician in the great offices of State. Home Sec was always won by Roy Jenkins with Joynson Hicks the worst-I'm not sure that we shouldn't revise that opinion as any one the quartet of 'knuckle dragging neanderthals'* Labour appointed should be in the reckoning.

If we added Pickle's portfolio to the list he may well take the prize as the worst having fought off the incompetent John Prescott for the tittle.
Here in Sefton I've heard no one try to defend him. I was particularly annoyed by another irresponsible bit of 'spin' he indulged in; namely asserting that Local Authorities were sitting on vast balances that they ought to spend to keep the council tax down

Now Sefton has always kept very low balances and regularly gets the Auditor and or Senior Finance Officer (who is obliged to certify that the budget is financial robust) pushing for higher reserves. Now along comes Pickles and suddenly we have £24 million in reserves and we are wicked people. Of course the simple minded will ask why don't you spend it? and we shall have to endlessly explain.

My colleague Simon Shaw has done his homework writes:

For example, within the £24 million are included the following - with details copied from the 2009/10 Sefton Accounts - see Note 43 on pages 63 and 64 

1. £6.6m Standards Fund - Schools have until August 2010 to spend their 2009/2010 allocations of
Standards Fund grant from central government. As at the year-end, £6.597m of the total grant
remained unspent. This has been reserved for use in 2010/2011. BELONGS TO SCHOOLS.

2. £1.4m Modernisation Fund - The Council is currently undergoing a review of relative staff
responsibilities / remuneration levels as a result of the Single Status agreement in 1997. This
potentially could result in a significant level of additional expenditure for the Council over the next
few years. A reserve has been created to offset some of this expenditure in future years. In
addition, it will be used to help the Council modernise its services and meet “one-off” invest to save


3. £7.9m Environmental Warranty - The Council has provided a 35 year environmental warranty for
the land / property that has been transferred to One Vision Housing Ltd. This warranty requires the
Council to remediate any environmental contamination found on these sites during the life of the
warranty. Resources are being set-aside over the coming years as a prudent measure against a

There is part of the "£24 million" which could be used, e.g. £6.9m Insurance Fund, and I am fairly certain part of this have already been assumed in order to bridge the £38m (now £44m gap). However, if Pickles really thinks that (for example) Sefton has £24m which it could use, then someone should put him straight. Another example of civil servants not understanding the real world.

*Polly Toynbe's description of the likes of Blunket, Straw and Reid,

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