|'The Best and Worst of Times'
Ealing Council Leader Julian Bell on the challenges ahead
It was the "best of times it was the worst of times" in Dickens' novel a Tale of Two Cities.
It certainly feels like that running Ealing council. The Council is facing cuts from the Tory-led Government worth £96m. This means that since I became the Leader of the Council up until the next election in 2018 we will have to make cuts of £183m. That is a reduction in our controllable budget of over 50%. It’s not possible to face that amount of cuts and not cut services. We have been grappling with the problem since we were re-elected in May and now our first set of proposals of £56m cuts have been announced it is heartbreaking.
There are three villains in this unprecedented situation. Firstly the bankers who brought the world's financial system to its knees by their greedy and frankly criminal behaviour in 2007/8. Secondly the Tory led government who in 2010 choked off the economic recovery and as a result have failed to eliminate the deficit and are now spending and borrowing more. Growth is stagnant and we are all struggling to cope with the cost of living crisis and austerity stretches out to at least the end of the decade. The third villain is Eric Pickles the Local Government Secretary of State who has imposed on Councils the highest level of cuts of any Government department. Local government is bearing the brunt of the government's cuts and it is not sustainable.
In local government there is what is called the "graph of doom". This graph shows local government income going inexorably down over the next five years and demand for our services particularly social care for the elderly going steeply in the opposite direction due to the increase in the elderly population. As a result by the end of the decade it is predicted that Councils will only be able to afford to provide social care to vulnerable children and adults and collect the refuse and recycling. We will not be able to afford to pay for any of the other services we currently provide. With another £40m still to be found to reach the £96m cuts target by 2018/9 Ealing Council are staring the "graph of doom" in the face. We are not alone in this as Councils up and down the country are making the same kinds of tough decisions we are and the National Audit Office is predicting that more than half of all Councils will face financial failure within 5 years.
A new Labour government will inherit this mess if Labour wins next May. In order to get the deficit down Labour have said they will initially stick with Tory spending plans but Hilary Benn, Labour's Local Government chief has said that he will share out Council funding more fairly. It is scandalous that under the Tories the most deprived Councils in the country have faced swinging cuts whilst places like David Cameron's Council, West Oxfordshire - one of the least deprived areas in the country - got a 3.1% increase in its funding in 2013/14. Labour is also committed to devolving £30bn to Councils and local partners to boost economic growth and will also tackle spending on social care by integrating health and social care provision. Tough times still lie ahead under a Labour government but it will certainly be fairer and more prosperous than the current situation.
I said at the start of this piece that this was the best of times as well as the worst of times. Whilst the council faces a huge challenge there are also new opportunities many of which are built on the back of the investment coming into the Borough due to Crossrail. The council has just released the first details of our ambitious plans to transform Ealing Town Centre, with a new library and Percival House, a refurbished town hall as well as the new cinema that will be built opposite. The regeneration of our estates will continue and we will build new schools to ensure our growing population has the best start in life.
The challenge we face as a borough is huge but we can overcome it by taking advantage of the equally enormous opportunities and by working together. It truly is the best and worst of times.
2nd December 2014