Yesterday the online version of the Gazette published the latest opinion piece from Labour council leader Julian Bell. He rightly points up the opporitunities facing Ealing but makes too much of the dreaded cuts. He says:
Over the last four years we have already cut our budgets by Â£87m and things have been tough.
To have to find another Â£96m of cuts over the next four years is near on impossible.
Bell’s claims about cuts are exaggerated to say the least. He says that: “we have already cut our budgets by Â£87m”. This is a very misleading statement and forward looking statements by Labour and the council officers can be discounted as being equally misleading.
The reality is that total spending by the core of Ealing council increased by about Â£10 million in cash terms in the 2010-2014 period of the last council. If the council hadnâ€™t been packing away underspends into reserves or using them to pay for capital projects spending would probably have been maintained in real terms in the core of Ealing council.
I asked Question 41 at the end of the last financial year:
Please state the councilâ€™s revenue spending for the following financial years: 2009/10, 2010/11, 2011/12, 2012/13, 2013/14.
If figures for the last financial year are not available please use the latest forecast out turn figures. Please separate out education spending and housing benefit spending. Everything else can be lumped together unless there are other large items that distort the figures.
The council, typically, did not answer my question as straightforwardly as I might like, in a way that is easily comprehensible by the public. That is because they are embarrassed by the gulf between the story they have been telling and the truth.
In the four year period education spending increased from Â£203.3 million to Â£259.7 million, a rise of Â£56.4 million or 28%. Generous indeed and well above inflation.
In the four year period housing benefit spending increased from Â£236.8 million to Â£271.3 million, a rise of Â£34.5 million or 15%. Certainly a real increase after inflation.
The council received a totally new public health grant to take on responsibilities from the NHS. It was much more generous than they were expecting at Â£21.4 million and council officers are convinced they will be able to manage this money much more effectively than the NHS and make it go further.
Spending on council housing rose from Â£65.1 million to Â£69.0 million, a modest rise of Â£3.9 million or 6%. Maybe a slight fall in real terms but more or less flat.
Finally, we get the everything else column which is a net figure for the core of Ealing Council. In other words they have taken total spending and already subtracted that part of it which is covered by income from fees and charges so the actual spend is many Â£10 millions larger than this. They donâ€™t want you to see the whole picture because it makes the â€œcutsâ€ look rather more manageable.
As it happens Â£10 million of the â€œcutsâ€ Bell talks about are increases in charges for everything from parking to paying for carers. So the bit you canâ€™t see got Â£10 million larger but they are not admitting to it. No wonder they say local government finance is opaque.
The figure for â€œAll other spend net of fees & chargesâ€ was level rising from Â£337.2 million in 2009/10 to Â£337.3 million in 2013/14. This is a real terms drop but it is not so bad due to the extra Â£10 million from increased charges which is hidden in this presentation of the sums.
This picture doesnâ€™t even tell the whole story as the council packed money away into reserves by underspending over the last four years. If the council had wanted to maintain spending in real terms it could have done by not underspending. The modest real terms cut has only arisen because the council chose to underspend on the current account.
Overall the council has seen flat or growing spending in some areas and only suffered a real terms cut to its core because of underspends. Julian Bell, and the council officers who maintain the fiction of cuts, really should be ashamed of the way they misrepresent the facts.