Depending on your age and musical taste – whether it be Nina Simone, the Animals or, like me, Elvis Costello – you may be aware of the line: ‘Oh Lord please don’t let me be misunderstood’. Similarly, if you are a s151 officer for a district, a county or a metropolitan council you will be imploring the Treasury that your current financial position is not misunderstood.
I have said many times that no self-respecting s151 officer ever wants to be put in the position where they have to issue a s114 report, and I believe as you read this article numerous s151 officers are desperately trying to avoid that. They will be working tirelessly with their management teams and cabinets to find a way to balance this year’s budget.
The Government’s extra £0.5bn for cost pressures and a fees and charges scheme which burdens councils and completely ignores, or worse criticises them for being dependent on commercial income is simply not enough. Nor is the pledge to look at shortfalls in collection funds as part of the Spending Review. With the latest Local Government Association estimates of an impact on local government in excess of £10bn, there is a long way to go before we achieve in-year financial stability.
There are signs the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is listening and trying to advocate on behalf of the sector, but it feels that unless some councils issue s114 reports, the Treasury will believe a disaster has been averted. This is a misunderstanding of our position.
Local government has a track record second to none in delivering within its resources. What the sector will be announcing in the coming months are cuts to spending plans which will mean reduced services and jobs at the time when they should be supporting people and businesses.
That said the vast majority of councils will find a way to balance their books. As the song says: ‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, Oh Lord please don’t let me be misunderstood.’
Tony Kirkham is director of resources at Newcastle City Council