Saturday, 3 November 2012

Time to make a stand

Everyone knows that running a nation’s economy is not like running a household. The way to reduce a national deficit is to invest in jobs so that income from taxation increases, not to cut expenditure to the bone, causing misery and further economic depression.

But managing the finances of a local authority, in England at the current point in history, seems very much like running a household. In fact, listening to Jason Kitcat’s webcast on the Brighton & Hove council website yesterday, it struck me that it is like trying to run a household while under the cruel and heartless control of an abusive partner.

Brighton & Hove council (like any other council) is given a limited amount of income it can use to pay for the vital services it provides. This income is provided by the government, but the amount keeps shrinking, year on year. The government changes its mind on a whim about how much money is available and what it can be spent on. It provides money on condition that councils behave in certain ways. It even makes the rules about how much income councils can generate for themselves through taxation or borrowing.

Imagine if you had £767 a month to live on. Out of that you have to pay your rent, council tax, bills, heat your home, feed and clothe your children. It’s been tight – you’ve had to give up some things you used to be able to afford - but you have just about been able to keep going for the last month.

You had even worked out a plan for how to manage when the income went down to £753 next month. You were trying not to think about the further reductions your partner (let’s call him George) had been threatening. You were trying not to think about Christmas coming up, or what you’d do when the kids need new shoes.

Then George comes home and airily says “Oh by the way, it’s going to be £742 next month. You can manage on that, can’t you?”

You can’t get a job or borrow money – George won’t allow it. What should you do?

Some friends advise you to keep your head down and get through this bad patch. In fact, they are not sure you’ve been handling it right up to now – why did you spend the money on that stairgate for the toddler when the five year old needs a new school uniform? Maybe some of your trouble is of your own making.

Better friends say you should not have to put up with this, and nor should your children.

Of course, here’s where my analogy breaks down, because Brighton & Hove Council can’t walk away from this relationship.

But maybe it can fight back. Gather supporters and evidence that cutting local government funding is hurting real children (not just the made up ones in my story). Use the expertise and knowledge in the city to work out how much we really need to provide excellent services and demand that from George. Work with other local authorities who are doing the same, to make a united stand.

At the very least, maybe councillors on Brighton & Hove Council who oppose the cuts can use next year’s budget process to send a clear message to the government: we don’t support your cuts and we won’t vote for them.


Jon Rogers said...

The same dilemma which faces Labour Councils - and I fear there is as few Labour Councillors as there are Green Councillors prepared to take the course you rightly advocate.

Kate Dale said...

As with an abusive relationship, there are things the person (woman, let's face it in most cases) on the receiving end can do to empower themselves. In the case of an an individual, there's something to be said for understanding your own internal conflicts and getting rid of the negative elements (disempowering beliefs about yourself, low self-esteem etc) that make it harder to see the whole picture and take a stand for yourself. This analogy holds for the council, which also has some very debilitating internal conflicts that are draining money, time, energy and goodwill from the body politic. To be a little more specific, they could save a shitload of money straight away by sacking the three top layers of "management" in some areas, and letting the people who know what needs doing get on and do it without the relentless, time-and-money-and-energy wasting bollox that is the bread and butter of interpersonal politics amongst senior officers. We are literally paying people to spend their days bickering and posturing with each other, while decent, hard-working people who DO give a shit about what happens to vulnerable people in the city are rendered incapable of making much of an impact by the weight of the egos above them. The councillors need to wake up to just how much some senior officers despise them, and how much of their time they spend trashing and otherwise scuppering their ideas by pissing about fighting with each other. I am utterly, utterly sick of it - and fortunately, am out of there.

Dani said...

Hi Kate,

I think you make some good and important points about the failings of hierarchical management structures. I certainly don't envy anyone working in a large organisation, particularly one that's under such pressure.

Personally, I'm all for workers' control and flat organisational structures, but I'm afraid sacking the top three layers of management in the whole of Brighton & Hove council would only save about £2 million pounds a year, nowhere near the £25 million they are being asked to find next year.

Kate Dale said...

It would save much more then that, because it's not just about their salaries or counting the beans differently; it's about how those layers function as blocks to co-operation and creativity. Lord knows what could be achieved if the staff that really want to do the work (as opposed to just wanting to look busy and feel important) were empowered to do what they know is needed. There is massive thwarted potential in this council, and if the structure were changed radically enough, much of that could be unleashed - with results that would be staggering. I don't know how to quantify that potential, but it goes way beyond a line on a spreadsheet.