Council cuts brainstorming goes on, and on
The leaders of Birmingham City Council's Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition are about to head off on yet another brainstorming away-day to mull over how to cut ÃÂ£330 million from the budget of what is Britain's largest public authority.
To put an obviously a scary figure into some context, it represents almost one-third of what the council currently spends on non-schools services.
This is, therefore, unlike any other cuts exercise ever undertaken in this country particularly because the Government has decided the savings should be front-loaded with more being chopped in 2011 and 2012 than the following two years.
It is hardly surprising that council leaders are taking their time in deciding what to do.
Based on a crude calculation of cuts in Government grant, the council is probably looking at axing about 7,000 jobs by 2014.
Two years ago the cabinet and council chief officers were confident that savings could be delivered without redundancies, largely through retraining and shifting people in threatened jobs to other departments. The Chancellor's Comprehensive Spending review, slashing local government expenditure by 28 per cent, put paid to that idea.
It doesn't take a genius to suggest that hundreds of city employees are facing compulsory redundancy, because however much you try to downsize on such a scale through natural wastage and reorganisation a large number of sackings are inevitable.
There is an incredible amount of nervousness among senior Tory and Lib Dem councillors at how the cuts package will play nationally.
Birmingham is a huge place, so council statistics always appear to be more dramatic than is often the case. Even so, the prospect of ÃÂ£330 million being cut and 7,000 jobs going will make many a juicy headline in the national press, and not just in the tabloids either.
Reaching agreement over wielding the Government's spending axe is made more difficult in Birmingham by the need to square two political parties. Even so, a pledge in the summer that the council would keep people informed of its 2010-14 budget proposals at the earliest opportunity has fallen by the wayside. With the February budget-fixing meeting just three months away, the politicians are nowhere near deciding what to do.
While other major councils - Coventry, Warwickshire and Worcestershire - are at least giving a steer on their thinking and the number of jobs likely to be lost, Birmingham is remaining silent. It is being suggested that Birmingham's political elite, council leader Mike Whitby in particular, are desperate to avoid bad headlines and are therefore rejecting some of the more radical cost-cutting ideas which would see services farmed out en-masse to the private and voluntary sectors.
Not much has been heard lately, either, of the work into "discretionary services" ordered to be carried out by council chief executive Stephen Hughes.
These are services that the council provides at the moment but is not obliged by law to continue providing. Areas under consideration are thought to include parks maintenance, swimming pools, grass cutting, libraries, youth groups and weekly refuse collections.
There are some legal uncertainties here, with most people believing councils have to provide a library service. That is true up to a point, but Birmingham could almost certainly argue it does not have to pay for an extensive network of community libraries. As for parks, how many do you really need and do they have to be run by the council?