Saturday, February 13, 2016

New Dawn Fades

It seemed like a chink of light: last month, the Conservative leader of East Sussex County Council, supported by the leaders of all of the other political groups on the council, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister decrying the fact that cuts to services being handed down by central government would begin to hurt swathes of ordinary people. Councillor Keith Glazier outlined to David Cameron that there were no choices left to make: important frontline services were being cut.

The authority has already made cuts of more than £78 million since 2010 but must now make a further £90 million of cuts by April 2019, including £40 million from its adult social care budget. The Council has now raised its council tax by 4%, including a 2% levy to be spent on adult social care services, and has withdrawn funding from sheltered housing projects, adoption and fostering services, and voluntary groups providing support to the vulnerable. In an area with an ageing population these cuts would, in Councillor Glazier’s words, “significantly reduce the quality of life for many people in East Sussex”.

It was perhaps David Cameron who started this quiet Tory rebellion himself. In November of last year, he hilariously wrote to the leader of his own local Conservative county council complaining about cuts to day centres, libraries and museums in Oxfordshire. The Prime Minister urged the council to make back-office savings, instead; there are none left to make, came back the reply. Then Cameron’s aunt and mother weighed in to the debate, the former calling cuts to children’s services in the area “a great error” and the latter signing a protest petition. And rumblings of discontent were heard in other Tory shires as austerity suddenly looked like something that does not just happen to other people.

If we thought this heralded a new dawn of protest amongst Conservatives, it quickly faded. With a Commons vote on the local government finance settlement imminent, a £300m relief fund was announced last week to buy off a number of Tory MPs gearing up to vote against the government. In a blatant act of nepotism, this extra money will mostly be going to Tory-run counties in the south of England: analysis shows that 83% of the two-year fund will benefit Tory areas. Whilst the most deprived councils in the country – all Labour run – will receive nothing, Cameron’s Oxfordshire will receive £9m and East Sussex £5.44 million. This may have headed off disquiet for now – the amounts of relief are small compared to the scale of cuts to be delivered – but local Tories will need to develop stronger spines if they are to stand up for ordinary people.

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