Be reasonable, Eric!

For Progress Online

One outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review is that local authority services will never be the same again. A 25% cut in spending over four years, front-loaded, will have devastating effects on some services, amongst them many provided by third sector bodies. A good thing, some might say, they needed a shake-up; others will pray in aid the Big Society in which people power, the resources and consciences of our communities, will provide a new generation of localised and nuanced grass roots services.

And so it might. But the planned time scale, deliberately accelerated so that the ship is steady in time for the next election, will create mayhem in the short term. Not only will money be withdrawn from the sector and jobs lost but confidence will be shattered as communications break down as local authority contacts disappear. People of goodwill will be traumatised as they survey a landscape containing little immediate hope or certainty.

The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, addressed the NCVO annual conference on 1 March, as many local authorities were setting their 2011-12 budgets. Across the land, budget setting meetings had been lobbied by organisations facing knock-on cuts, to little avail. Mr Pickles tried to cheer delegates up: Tendring (one of the smallest district councils in the country) was increasing its funding to the sector ten-fold, he said, and Reading showed a slight increase, too. He called on councils to be ‘reasonable’ and not inflict ‘disproportionate’ cuts on the sector. In a remarkable speech from a government committed to localism he said that he would be the final arbiter of reasonableness and proportionality!

Was it all too late? With budgets already being set Eric has admitted that he does not yet have the legal power to make such judgements. He has opened up a can of worms in which lawyers and judicial reviews will undoubtedly thrive. If a council faces a 10% cut in its budget this year, is any cut of over 10% by definition unreasonable? If the council finds that it cannot cut those services which it has a legal duty to provide without being in breach of its statutory duties, might not a larger cut inflicted on smaller, discretionary grants budgets actually be deemed reasonable?

With decisions already being made, a new financial year about to start and local elections pending in many areas, Mr Pickles has called for councils to give six months notice of major funding changes to charities. How and when can he resolve the multiple conundrums he has created?