Bringing on the bad news

By Blair Mcpherson | 30 September 2021

There was a time and it’s not so long ago when officers couldn’t get members to make a decision they knew would be unpopular with their constituents. Not surprisingly members were worried about losing votes, of course they still are but it’s different now. Years of austerity have conditioned both the public and members to expect bad news and painful decisions. Year on year budget cuts are ‘accepted’ as inevitable, the Cabinet has little room for manoeuvre, the opposition would be forced to make the same decisions (despite alternative proposals), unpopular strategies are agreed leaving ,’back benchers’ to lead the opposition in their wards in an attempt to win some concessions. In many ways this shows a maturity often lacking in central government. If officers make a sound business case albeit involving unpopular measures like closing council run old people’s homes or libraries, cabinet members have gone for it and weathered the storm of public protest and judicial reviews. Probably to the surprise of many commentators and political insiders this has not led to a revolt at the polls. The public have got the message that local authority budgets have been drastically cut.

This doesn’t mean the politics have been taken out of local government. Members want to show their local constituents what they have done /are doing for them and it’s a lot easier for councillors from the ruling party to bring pressure to bear when priorities are being drawn up and criteria agreed. Nor has the business case replaced political ideology. The whole outsourcing agenda and the more recent drive to bring services in-house was presented as a financial/ efficiency measure but in reality officers prepared the business case that cabinet members favoured.

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