We are fast approaching that time when the London Borough of Hounslow delivers its budget for the coming year. In early March 2011 Borough Council will debate and vote upon a series of proposals that will, it hopes, enable it to reduce the local authority's annual spending by £18m. Inevitably valuable provision will be cut and the public will see a reduction in the services it receives.
The Axeman is an avowedly non-party political being. Up until 2006 he slashed services under a Labour administration, causing much angst as he closed John Aird House (a residential care home in Brentford), threatened to privatise vital health care services and hacked £1m in a single blow from the Education budget at a time when monies provided by the government for that very purpose were not ring-fenced. I attended more than one demonstration against what appeared to me to be acts of almost gratuitous inhumanity.
Then in 2006 a new administration took office of which the Independent Community Group (ICG) was a part. Almost immediately our Conservative coalition partners announced the launch of a drastic cost-cutting initiative called the Performance Improvement Programme (PIP) and declared its intention to freeze Council Tax levels, which we generally supported and between us actually managed to do for four years in a row. But there were casualties, not least the Hounslow Language Service, and from opposition Labour opposed many of the savings made by the coalition Axeman, campaigning against cuts in public services as we ourselves had done in opposition.
Now Labour is back in office, and the Axeman is once again playing for the team in red. Granted the impetus for the drastic programme of cuts upon which Hounslow is about to embark comes from central government and its savage Comprehensive Spending Review, but nonetheless the Labour administration has to deal with the same reality as the coalition administration before it and the old Labour administration before that. That reality is that the level of central government support for local councils declines year upon year no matter who is in charge at the Exchequer.
What happens at the stage we are at now is that Lead Members will have asked Chief Officers to identify potential savings in their own departments. Some of those suggested savings are included in this document, which will be discussed by the Executive next week.
The flaw in this process, and which has always been the case, is that Chief Officers will invariably identify those savings that they themselves are comfortable with, and omit those that they are not. For instance, rarely if at all will Lead Members be presented with a proposal to reduce Chief Officer salaries, or to merge departments so as to reduce their number. Unless the Lead Member is unusually hands-on, he or she will almost always accept the options presented as being the only ones realistically available.
The ICG has not had the opportunity to formally discuss these proposals as yet, but what I imagine will concern my colleagues in particular are the various implied assaults on local democracy. In particular the suggestion that Area Committees could be abolished or curtailed. My guess is that these were probably amongst the first proposals to have been mooted by certain of our Chief Officers and I would be surprised if much sleep was lost as they found their way onto the list.
It would be tempting, of course, to consider Area Committees as a luxury by comparison with frontline services to the really needy such as Older People or Children's Services. By that logic we might just as well do away with elections to the council as well - the potential saving involved would be considerable.
But the whole rationale of local government is that it enjoys a democratic mandate. This is precisely why elected members, as opposed to the more "expert" officers, are ultimately responsible for making decisions. Once that principle has been compromised we are embarked upon a journey down a very slippery slope with no handbrake. One cannot put a price on democracy.
I am also concerned by the suggestion that local community centres may be cut adrift. Sure, I do note from the document that the need for local community groups to be given time to build the capacity to take them over is acknowledged, but knowing as I do the complete lack of interest in resident involvement or even opinion that exists in certain departments there is little doubt in my mind that, were such a proposal to be taken up, our community centres would be abandoned with indecent haste and indeed closed down as soon as it was felt it could be got away with.
This is not about empowering communities, this is about certain senior officers seizing a perceived opportunity to remove themselves forever from meaningful public scrutiny.
These are difficult times, and I am reluctant to try to score points by blaming the current administration for the predicament it finds itself in (although it has to be said, under the circumstances, that some of the ruling party's election promises were reckless to say the least - everyone knew there would be cuts whoever triumphed at the general election). However I do believe that the organised community must lobby hard to protect itself from any attempt to use government cuts as a convenient excuse for curtailing its freedoms and its ability to organise.