Last week, Ranjit Banwait, the leader of Derby City Council re-invigorated the “Big Conversation”. Despite the recent consultation in 2014, the Council sees the need to ask the public again, essentially the same question, under the same guise, but with an air of menace.
“….it’s clear from the Chancellor’s statement this week that more cuts are to come and we want to make sure you have the opportunity to influence decisions by telling us which services are the most important to you, your family and your community and who might deliver those services in the future”
A list of areas were published which were considered appropriate for wider consultation. Although described as “not being exhaustive” it is “leading the witness”. What about the proposal of “reducing the number of councillors”, for example, – this would benefit from wider discussion?
So why is the Big Conversation party politicking?
The £69m cuts that were highlighted in the original 2015 to 2018 consultation were not based on figures actually advised , directly, to the Derby City Council. It was based on expectations derived from interpreting graphs from the Chancellor’s Autumn statement. Whilst the reduction might be directionally correct – after all, all areas of government are being cut – the number is speculation.
To suggest on 13th July that there are “more cuts to come” is layering more speculation on assumption and guesswork packaged as “fact”. It simply continues this Council’s strategy of scaremongering the public and constructing a “smokescreen” for its own mismanagement of the Council finances. It cannot continue to blame the Central Govt for every negative decision that has to be taken and to side-step its accountability to lead and manage the situation.
Everyone in Derby, and particularly the elderly, the disabled and the children, need the Council to deliver a good quality service over the coming years despite the cuts. The conundrum is that if they are successful in achieving this, then it will have demonstrated that the cuts were justified / manageable and no party political points would be scored. The alternative is to make life a misery for the vulnerable and blame it on the Tories. If they don’t know how to deliver success given the inevitable funding position then they need to resign.
So why is the Big Conversation a charade?
In the Cabinet report from the first consultation
The most common themes arising from the comments made by respondents to the consultation were:
Proposals to close Moorways Swimming Pool
Budgets should be spent on the most vulnerable
Front-line services should be protected from reductions
Cuts to funding for voluntary sector organisations
The Council needs to be more efficient and minimise wasting money.
The first Budget Consultation document for 2015/16 included the closure of Moorways at a saving of £343,000 and the cut to Voluntary Sector Grants by £100k. These were subsequently removed, or deferred, following more focussed, public debate in the media. So, given the overwhelming feedback in the Big Conversation on these points, why was this ignored in the original draft of the Budget. The reality is that the Big Conversation does not influence anything – it merely gives people the impression that someone is listening.
The sum total impact of these 2 issues which were most important to the public was £443,000. This represents 0.2% of the Council’s Discretionary budget ( excluding education) – less than a “drop in the ocean” and irrelevant to achieving £69m of savings.
The Council is a significant enterprise with a budget of £220m. The level of savings that it needs to make will require transformational thinking. What this looks like, and what is possible is far beyond the scope of any casual participant of the “Big Conversation”. This is not to disrespect the residents of Derby –but, regardless of personal capability, they simply do not have the level of information and context to make a balanced and informed comment and it is disingenuous to suggest that it is possible.
Clearly the electorate can give over-arching priorities and direction which will remain largely unchanged from year to year. These were reflected in the consultation. To ask people to select options between 2 competing priorities is abdicating responsibility. If the Council don’t feel that they can do that and reflect the views of their constituents then they need to resign.
The Leader keeps mentioning about people “influencing decisions”. In what way has the Council truly allowed the parents of Castle Nursery to influence that closure decision.
I will also watch carefully how the Council manages the transition of the 81, very anxious, severely disabled people living in Derby, from the centrally controlled Independent Living Fund to locally managed budgets, bearing in mind that the Big Conversation said that the “Budgets should be spent on the most vulnerable” – a very clear message, regardless of how many times it is asked.!