‘The gift that keeps on giving’ – originally a US 1920s marketing slogan for a new phonograph/gramophone, it’s since been applied to anything from magazine subscriptions to sexually transmitted diseases. And now, for the distraction and delectation of a local government world waiting anxiously for the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, we have the almost-too-good-to-be-true exchange of letters between David Cameron and Ian Hudspeth, Conservative leader of Oxfordshire County Council.
It’s just conceivable – though hard seriously to imagine how – that the correspondence might have remained private. Even leaked out in mid-September, when the exchange took place, it might have been lost in the mass coverage of Corbyn and the party conferences. But, thanks largely to the media’s hesitancy to touch anything even vaguely technical to do with local government finance, it’s oozed out almost day by day. Well into its second week as I write (November 15th), it’s still exuding, but is surely already established as the classic case of a PM going out of his way, and possibly beyond his remit, to demonstrate how little he comprehends about the consequences of his own government’s policies – until, of course, the next case comes along.
The sequence of events has been as follows:
September 14th – Cameron [MP for Witney, Oxfordshire] writes on Commons notepaper to Ian Hudspeth at his home address, detailing his disappointment “at the long list of suggestions floated in the [County Council’s 2016-17 Budget] briefing note to make significant cuts in frontline services – from elderly day centres, to libraries, to museums.” He also offers “to initiate a further dialogue with advisers in the No10 Policy Unit and yourself – please contact Sheridan Westlake [PM’s Special Adviser – No10 email address given], if you wish to take this up.”
September 22nd – Hudspeth replies with detailed 6-page refutation, and accepts the Sheridan invitation.
November 6th – Oxford Mail’s Matt Oliver writes front-page story based on the gaping divergence of views and statistics revealed in the evidently leaked letters. BBC 1’s Breakfast programme leads on the story, but without crediting the Mail, for which it later apologises.
Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) publishes, as part of its budget consultation, some “more background information to help people understand our budget position” – including a funding graph, showing how (contrary to Cameron’s assertion) the council’s “overall funding is going down, and the balance between local and government funding [of local government] fundamentally changing”.
November 7th – 9th – Despite the BBC coverage, the story is largely ignored by the national media over the weekend, though picked up on the Monday by the Mirror and on subsequent days by the broadsheets.
November 11th – The Guardian’s George Monbiot writes the first really detailed and documented story – “The PM hasn’t the faintest idea how deep his cuts go. This letter proves it”.
November 12th – Labour finally realises this could be not just a ‘PM clueless’ or ‘PM’s hypocrisy’ story, but a ‘PM flouts Constitution’ one. Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, Jonathan Ashworth, writes to Cabinet Secretary asking for a ruling whether Cameron, in apparently conflating his roles as minister and constituency MP, has broken the ministerial code. The code says: “Ministers are provided with facilities at government expense to enable them to carry out their official duties. These facilities should not generally be used for party or constituency activities.”
As I said, it’s one of those gifts that keeps on giving. Stand by for a Clintonesque Lewinsky defence: “It depends what the meaning of ‘generally’ is”. This, though, is a local government blog, interested primarily in the two letters’ core contents. It’s not easy to summarise Hudseth’s long, detailed missive – explaining, as Monbiot put it, each issue gently, as if to a slow learner – but I’ll try, using the leader’s own assertion-refutation format, to convey something of both its explicit substance and (in italics) its implicit spirit. It’s also worth adding, that, according to the DCLG English Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2015, Oxfordshire is ranked 9th least deprived of 152 upper-tier local authorities (File 11).
Assertion: “Oxfordshire’s spending has actually increased in recent years …”
Refutation: Only if you believe your government’s own ‘spending power’-driven propaganda, ignore the council’s additional responsibilities – particularly public health and the new burdens related to adult social care – and forget that additional Better Care Funding for adult social care is not new money, but has been at the expense of funding for NHS services (see also https://inlogov.com/2015/01/21/the-fairness-or-otherwise-of-the-2015-16-local-government-finance-settlement/).
OCC’s employment (excluding schools) has fallen by 37.4% since April 2010; and, according to the DCLG’s own figures, grants from central government (excluding housing benefit and other service-specific grants) have been cut by 36.3% overall in real terms, and local authorities’ total revenues have fallen by 19.9%.
Assertion: OCC is not following the best practice of other Conservative councils.
Refutation: You seem to have no better understanding of the circumstances of the area you represent and of your electors than you do of local government finance. OCC’s reducing budget starts out from a low base – under £300 per capita from the UK taxpayer (excluding fire services), compared to an upper-tier/unitary average of around £500, and £900+ for authorities such as Westminster. If the Council Tax referendum threshold had permitted us to make the planned modest increase of 3 – 3.75% over the decade, we would be facing £50 million less of required savings.
As a thriving economy, growing more quickly than London since the recession, our overall population is projected to rise over 13% between 2009 and 2020. The elderly population, who generate the largest social care demand, will grow from under 15,000 to over 20,000 in the present decade and more rapidly still thereafter, generating cost pressures of £30 million in the annual budget. The other big area of cost growth has been children’s social care. We currently have 574 children in care at an average cost of £49,000 p.a., and relevant budgets have increased by 60%, from £40 million in 2009-10 to £64 million.
Assertion: The £204 million your briefing note said had been taken out of the budget since 2010 is a cumulative figure that includes efficiency savings from cutting waste.
Refutation: (No italics required) “I cannot emphasise enough that £204 million is NOT a cumulative figure. Rather, it is the amount we have saved annually by 2014/15. The cumulative savings since 2010/11 are in fact £626 million.”
Assertion: I would have hoped that Oxfordshire would be following the best practice of Conservative councils across the country in making back-office savings and protecting the frontline.
Refutation: You really don’t get it, do you! Our significant savings over recent years have included taking as much from the back-office as possible through our in-house shared service arrangements. From this July, ongoing savings in this area will be secured via our new partnership with Hampshire County Council. In addition, we have undertaken a major review of our management structures across the council since 2010, making significant cost savings through cutting 40% of our two top tiers of management and 50% of our third-tier managers.
I trust you’ll have got the gist; if not, there’s another five pages or so in much the same vein. My guess is that, while he may just keep his place on the Camerons’ Christmas card list, Mr Hudspeth probably won’t be joining them for New Year’s Eve karaoke and ‘dad-dancing’.
Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.