Opening the floodgates…

FLOODY HELL: Today's floods tell the tale of ill-thought through budget decisions where cost considerations triumph over real value.
FLOODY HELL: Today’s floods tell the tale of ill-thought through budget decisions where cost considerations reign supreme.

HAVE THE floodgates just opened to expose the true impact of the Government’s cuts programme?

The wall-to-wall media coverage of events in the South West and other areas has been inescapable in recent days and, obviously, my sympathies go out to everyone affected.

But the real issues at stake here go way beyond the immediate chaos and disruption we are watching on our TV screens.

Firstly, let’s be clear that extreme weather conditions like this will always trump any human pre-planning or intervention. At best, governments can only invest to reduce the likelihood of mass damage and to limit the scale of impact.

I suspect the blame game on this will run on for some time, but it does at least appear to be commonly accepted that dredging would have given bulging rivers more capacity, thus limiting the damage and speeding up the recovery.

Interviews with local folk, who know better than any minister or quango, tell the story of their anger and sheer frustration.

That’s not because these people unreasonably believe the government could have prevented all the damage – and not because they’ve all suddenly graduated with a degree in hindsight – but the fact is clear that for many years local people have raised concerns about the lack of action by the Environment Agency in dredging these rivers.

The Environment Agency has responded in anger against ministers pointing the finger of blame at them and the media, who the board claim have whipped up this storm (yes, that pun was intended).

But a very legitimate question to the Environment Agency itself would be whether this is all about the request for funding being declined – or whether it was the case that the refusal was accepted all too readily.

Was it the case – faced with ‘know-it-all’ residents pushing professionals – that the top brass at the EA simply pulled down the shutters and ignored their concerns?

Questions also go to ministers who have undervalued public service and, worse still, offered it up almost as a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter.

I’m clearly old-fashioned in believing that public services are designed to serve the public interest and have developed over time to respond to better understanding of community and social need.

If the first responsibility of a government is to protect the social and economic wellbeing of its citizens then, on this occasion, it has clearly failed.

But it is the floods today that tell the tale of ill-thought through budget decisions where cost considerations triumph over real value.  In 2012, the UK had already faced significant flooding which the Environment Agency itself reported had cost the UK economy £600m.

So, what will it be tomorrow?

Could it, for example, be a crisis in adult social care where money is being ripped away from town halls with, it appears, the support of the electorate as part of a cynical attack on the ‘wasteful’ public sector?

Government has failed to address the question about the future of public services, so maybe it time’s to put it to the public. In Oldham, the cuts to YOUR council would total £201m in recent times, so what gives?

I imagine people would queue up to suggest that we sack more managers and stop councillors’ allowances. Well, we’ve already done a far bit of that, but let’s go the whole hog; that’s £5m saved. Result.

So with £196m left to cut we have taken the easier decisions, although some of those are painful.

With £60m to find in savings over the next two financial years I cannot stress enough that public service for Oldham Council will no longer be business as usual.

If you accept that a council can take that kind of money out of its budget then the government and residents must also accept that risks come hand in hand with that.

If cuts continue in adult social care then there may come a time when your friend or relative is denied care. If cuts continue in safeguarding children at risk, or drug and alcohol services, then that will also not be risk free.

Putting our next round of cuts into stark terms, of the £60m needed to balance government cuts, what will be left is absolutely critical.

The vast majority which remains is spent in safeguarding, adults and children’s’ services.

Most of those services are completely invisible to members of the public – until something goes wrong.

The services that we feel and use daily as residents actually only account for a fraction of council spend – around £14m in total.

So even if we closed every library and other public buildings, stopped cleaning the streets, stopped emptying bins, stopped routine maintenance of highways and parks, and turned off all the streetlights, we’d still have a further £46m to cut from those essential ‘people’ services.

But it is clear to me now that the tension from residents is beginning to show.

When hard-pressed staff have to decline to deal with requests my inbox is filled with complaints about how the council has failed people by saying no.

Even when officers point to the budget cuts people show little sympathy as they focus on the impact on themselves and their immediate neighbours.

Some do question whether or not our investment in regeneration at a time of cuts is the right approach – and my simple answer is yes. It’s the only approach unless we agree to accept decline and allow hope and aspiration to be the next victim of cutbacks.

Public services are here to provide a public service. When it works well, few people see the scale and impact, but when it fails it unleashes a media storm matched by public outrage.

We all have to take responsibility for speaking up and saying that we value our public services or we must accept that, when the time comes, the safety net won’t be there to catch us.

Returning to the crisis of today: not to worry?

Communities and Local Government Minister Eric Pickles has now been put in charge and quickly travelled to the areas affected by the floods.

A bit late in the day, perhaps, but at least he’ll whip the local council into emptying the bins each week again. A flood is no excuse surely?

Thanks for listening,