Sunday, 20 February 2011

Why do some people find it so hard to understand how a budget works?

That old fool Philip Pullman is upset at the prospect of library downsizing. In a recent speech, he lashed out against the difficult choices facing many local authorities:

"Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries. Mr Keith Mitchell, the leader of the county council, said in the Oxford Times last week that the cuts are inevitable, and invites us to suggest what we would do instead. What would we cut? Would we sacrifice care for the elderly? Or would youth services feel the axe? I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them.”

Where does one start with this kind of incoherent rhetoric? Anyone who has ever held responsibility for a budget knows that there are three numbers that matter; how much is coming in, how much is going out, and the difference between the two. If there is less money coming in than going out, then difficult decisions are inevitable.

The county council in Oxfordshire, like local authorities across the country, has lower revenues. There are multiple reasons for the shortfall; lower economic growth, the after-shock of the financial crisis, and large banks successfully avoiding corporate income tax obligations.

Whatever the reason, people like Keith Mitchell have to confront the consequences of lower funding. This means answering incredibly painful questions like is it better to close 20 public libraries rather than reduce care for the elderly?

I don't know anything about Keith Mitchell or what party he represents. However, in these difficult days, he will be called upon to provide leadership, which means making agonizing and unpopular decisions that serve the best long term interests of his community.

He will find no help from scribblers like Pullman who put forward impossible demands such as maintaining public services without sufficient revenues to fund them.


Anonymous said...

Too true about not understanding budgets. However when I consider how many additional staff were added and the renumeration and benefit packages improvements for staff (at all levels) over the last 13 years and compare that to the new services or service improvements in the same period I can come to no other conclusion but that all the hyperbole and threats of service cuts are politically motivated. Councils will make terrible decisions just to stick it to the Government.

I would relish the opportunity to audit a local authority and execute a zero based budget exercise. This of course would take time but I am sure the savings would be substantial. The really important services in all probability would end up better funded. A similar audit of the personnel, their skills, motives and competence would result in whole scale changes. Proper management of staff and an insistence of a fair days work for a fair days pay would deliver stunning staffing efficiencies (and give the unions palpitations).

Sadly none of the above will happen.

Anonymous said...

Local Authority Councils are "creatures of statute". They only exist to deliver the outcomes of statute decided by Parliament. Their duties to supply Library services are covered by Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 and in that Act, the Executive (as opposed to Parliament) are advised by two Library Advisory Councils. These LAC's are being abolished.

LA's cannot ignore their Statutory duties nor can they exceed them. Meeting current statutory requirements may even have hit the economic buffers - which then leads onto a debate as to whether we should continue to load Local Authorities with more responsibilities (and costs) or less.

Until such times as the statutes and their concomitant responsibilities are removed, we'll just have to cough up.

dearieme said...

I used the public library a lot when I was a child: it was wonderful. Now I find the web wonderful. That doesn't mean that I'd close all public libraries, but it does mean that if I found, say, that one was principally being used for some desultory borrowing of Mills and Boon, plus a warm abode for poor old human wrecks, I might think that its budget would be better spent on other things. As for clearing out the army of employed non-workers in local government - yes, but how and by whom? My dear mother went to work for her town council in the 1920s and found that she could finish a day's work in an hour and a half: these problems may be new in scale but they are not new in kind. (Admittedly my mother was probably much more intelligent than many of her colleagues, but I'd guess that the main difference was that she'd just left the sort of school where the pupils were used to working hard.)

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms Cook

C. Northcote Parkinson said it all in 1955.

Follow the link for Berglas's update in 2008.


Weekend Yachtsman said...

I would start by cutting Mr. Keith Mitchell and (especially) the fat cats who work for him.

What does he (or do they) contribute that we would actually buy if we had the choice? I would guess nothing.