progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

Darlington Together

Last Monday, I attended the first of the Talking Together events on the future of the public services that  Darlington Borough Council provides. I went to get a better understanding of what the Tory/Liberal government was imposing on our council, and how people were responding.

Chris McEwan, the Cabinet member for Resources and Efficiency, delivered a presentation to open the proceedings. Strangely, he chose not to give an overtly political perspective on the cuts programme and instead focused on the council's financial situation. The feeling of Cabinet members was perhaps that, at an event at which council officers would be present to answer questions from the public, it was not appropriate to make overtly political arguments.

After the introduction, a great number of people departed to the break-out sessions on the arts centre and adult services. (I spotted fellow Darlington bloggers in the audience - Mike Barker, Annabel Townsend, and  Nick Wallis, present in his Cabinet member capacity.)

I decided to sit at the Economy table, because I was curious to find out how council officers understood the authority's relationship to the local economy. Here are the notes I made of the debates which took place, with parenthetic commentary:

£ ~ The change to local government funding in cash terms is both sudden and severe – it's clear the government is outsourcing decision-making on spending cuts to local authorities. (I think this amounts to an attack on local democracy; imposing a retrenchment upon will reduce the capacities and resources available to councils.)

£ ~ There's a need to maintain reserves to deal with emergencies, running them down could leave the town vulnerable in the event of unforeseen circumstances (such as, I'd say, if the government wields the axe even further than it currently plans).

£ ~ Less people will be directly employed by the council (this will no doubt impact on the quality of services).
As a small unitary authority, there will be issues with scale in terms of commissioning services; collaboration with neighbouring authorities already exists and will probably be extended to other areas.

£ ~ Chris MacEwan pointed out that the Coalition's big society is actually statist – the government expects it can use state power to create associative forms of service provision that exists in countries which lack a comprehensive welfare system (this necessarily imposes the "big society" model onto local authorities, which must look to voluntary groups in order to sustain services).

£ ~ There's a danger of public services retreating from working together, but with less funding available across the public sector, it will be important for greater collaboration between organisations.

After a while, I drifted off to see what was going on downstairs in one of the breakout groups. The Arts Centre meeting had attracted a significant number of people, and this it quickly became apparent to me that this is where the action was in terms of public reaction to the cuts.

Questions from the floor expressed incomprehension and frustration at the changes which were taking place. Not surprising since Cameron when leader of the opposition promised no frontline services would be affected by a Tory government.

Though for-profit outsourcing firms might be expected to gain, the sheer size of the cuts to local government funding could result in some of them going out of business, resulting in a swift concentration in new markets for public service provision (just as privatisation of public transport led to a near-immediate monopoly of provision in bus services, Darlington's bus wars being a notorious example).

Outsourced service provision could become less accountable to elected representatives and local people and more concerned with generating profit for shareholders. The government's frontloading of cuts to councils will make it difficult to manage the transition to a model of service delivery which would be prefereable to outsourcing; for example, members of the Labour Group are supportive of co-operative forms of enterprise, which can better retain a public service ethos.

In this respect, Darlington for Culture's propospectus and public meetings could be an example other threatened services might choose to follow. At the time of writing, the petition in support of arts and culture in Darlington had gathered over 1300 signatures. The open and democratic spirit in which Darlington for Culture has emerged owes much to Paul Harman, chair of the steering group; Paul has past experience, not only from working in creative industries, but also from his involvement with the co-operative housing movement. A "Cultural Parliament" will be held this Thursday at 7pm in the Arts Centre to sign up people and associations to become members of DfC and volunteer time and money to the project.

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