I do think that Labour’s top councillor, council leader Julian Bell, is to be admired for his hard work and tenacity in the face of a highly challenging environment. On top of dealing with truly unprecedented post war cuts to local government grants and the August riots Bell has an incredibly weak team behind him and visibly has to do most of the work himself. Labour are too quick to accuse Tories of enjoying the retrenchment that local government is currently undergoing. Before the May 2010 local elections the Conservative group in Ealing were truly in awe of the challenges that faced us in the years to come if we were to be re-elected (whoever came into power nationally). Bell is doing a tough job and is due some measure of respect for keeping the wheels on.
Bell is aided in his task by the officer group within the council who are naturally very conservative (in the sense of being risk averse). Like most bureaucracies they prioritise the preservation of the machine that they work for. This can be seen in the council’s response to the cuts in government grant. The grant cuts total some £56 million or 12.5% of total council spending. By the time that this has passed through the council’s system of financial padding this becomes £85 million – an extra £30 million added in the process. In the last financial year the council underspent its budget by £9 million and budget papers reveal that it intends to continue to underspend budgets in the process of taking £85 million out of them.
On the one hand the council suggests that it is being cut by 30% (a lie as the true figure is in fact 12.5%) on the other it keeps unearmarked (unallocated) reserves of £30 million. You could take 30% out of these if you really were 30% smaller! This financial conservatism is bad for current residents and service users but ensures that the council will remain a financially strong organisation into the future.
The officer team have their own priorities, which include themselves, their directly employed labour and the environment that they work in. Hence, in the absence of vision, leadership bandwidth and organisational experience on the part of the Labour political leadership, the officers’ priorities have become Labour’s priorities. The top officer team have been hardly touched by cuts, see here. Directly employed staff have not suffered extensive redundancies and overall staff spending is largely untouched as reorganisations allow the council to avoid a pay freeze by extensive upgrading of staff. The vast bulk of the council’s non-schools capital spending is being spent on the council’s own stock of buildings.
Labour’s main weakness as an administration is the lack of skills amongst their councillors. Even the small cabinet (8 out of 40 councillors) only has four really capable people in it. Bell is a hard worker and prepared to be out there taking the knocks. He had to personally lead the council’s humiliating libraries consultation in April this year and does by far the most speaking on all issues including finance. Labour’s finance chief, Cllr Yvonne Johnson, is a witty and engaging council chamber performer but shows little evidence of being anything more than a safe pair of hands. Johnson is not notably available leaving more weight for Bell to carry. Cllr Bassam Mahfouz in the Transport and Environment portfolio is a capable public face when he remembers not to get into fights with residents. Chief whip, Cllr Brian Reeves, is a schoolmasterly bear of a man who one imagines is quiet capable of keeping internal order. As an insider he is another who doesn’t project himself much. Beyond these four the rest of the cabinet are clearly out of their depth. Outside the cabinet there is a stunning lack of ability or even visibility amongst the Labour councillors.
Cllr Bell is having to work incredibly hard but he is keeping the wheels on at least.