Like all politicians, occasionally I get frustrated with stories in the local press. I’m sure most local journalists occasionally get frustrated with local politicians too! We have some excellent local reporters on the Advertiser and the Manchester Evening News, and it’s part of my job as a Councillor to take the rough press with the smooth. I try not to criticise the press in public – if there’s something I’m genuinely unhappy about I will have a quiet word – and I can only recall one occasion in six and a half years on the Council where I have done so. I have certainly never gone down the route that former Labour Councillor for Eccles Jane Murphy took, standing up in Full Council and suggesting that the Advertiser was such an awful rag that we needed to print Life In Salford every week!
This brings me to today’s front page splash in the Manchester Evening News. Now, I’m not going to go down the route that some others have done in criticising the MEN Group or their owners Trinity Mirror for publishing such a headline. They are a privately-run newspaper and they are as entitled to their opinion as anyone else. That is the whole point of a free press. However, I have every intention of joining the debate and explaining why I think that today’s editiorial is heading down the wrong track.
First of all, let’s be clear why these spending reductions are necessary: the catastrophic and unprecedented in peacetime state of the public finances bequeathed by the previous Labour Government.
Secondly, part of the problem with “cuts” stories is that they focus on the margins without looking at the bigger picture (the same goes for Council Tax increases, incidentally) so just for the record, here are those “unfair” 2011/12 grant settlements for selected authorities, per head of population:
For clarity, the figures for Dorset and Surrey are averages, as their two-tier Council structure means that each of their district Councils receive slightly different grants. Outside of inner London, only Liverpool and Knowsley receive more in formula grant than Manchester City Council does.
Now, just to be clear, it is absolutely right that deprived inner-city authorities receive considerably more money from the formula grant. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, our Council Tax base is lower, and secondly because the deprivation found in those authorities does lead to significant pressure on expenditure. With such a huge disparity in formula grant, can Manchester City Council really complain that the current situation is manifestly unfair?
Thirdly, despite the generous funding formula, there is no doubt that the spending reductions, necessary thanks to Labour’s catastrophic financial legacy, have presented our local Councils with significant challenges. The main reason, however, that Manchester City Council in particular is having to make such huge cuts is because of decades of overspending, inefficiency and poor management, and a failure to plan properly for cuts in spending that were coming even if Labour had been returned to power in Westminster.
To use one example, Manchester’s sickness rate is 12.99 shifts per staff member per annum – that’s nearly 340000 (!) lost shifts every year. The public sector average is around 9 shifts, the private sector average is about 6.5 and the rate for an operational firefighter in Greater Manchester is 4.98. How much money does this poor management cost the Manchester taxpayer every year?
We all want the best for Greater Manchester. I stood for election to put something back into my local community. It is possible, though, to stand up for our local areas without safeguarding the waste, bureaucracy and ineffiency of our Labour Councils.