By Michael Burke
One of the key areas targeted by the coalition is spending in the devolved authorities, regions and local authorities. Local government spending was cut almost immediately after the election, £2.8bn slashed from the devolved administrations, local government and Transport for London in the first £6.2bn package . Other cuts, such as to transport projects and flood defences will have a specific impact on local spending and services.
This is a political choice. The coalition’s aim is twofold: to deflect criticism away from central government and to co-opt others, especially those outside the coalition parties into supporting or defending the programme of drastic cuts. Floundering for a contemporary or historically important example of where spending cuts had actually reduced the deficit, the coalition has met with the BBC”s approval in alighting on the Canadian cuts of the 1990s. Ignoring the five-year domestic recession and rising debt level the Canadian federal government policy caused, even while benefitting from the “Clinton boom” to its South, the main mechanism Ottawa chose was simply to choke off the very large transfers to Canada”s provinces, which were responsible for huge budget items such as healthcare and welfare provision.Now a host of reactionary commentators, such as the Centre for Policy Studies are urging a new “localism” on the coalition, a call which is echoed by Guardian columnists including Simon Jenkins, who cynically argues that Cameron can “spread the blame on cuts” by devolving welfare budgets to local authorities, and cutting them. This has nothing to do with increased local democracy, but is merely a self-serving attempt to avoid the political consequences of a reactionary and deeply unpopular policy.
Local Effects of the CutsThat cynicism is widespread, with many local political leaders attempting to blame coalition cuts for their own policies which had pre-empted them. This is true of Boris Johnson in London and the Tory-LibDem coalition in Birmingham, both of which cut spending before their government funding was reduced. Yet the power of local opposition to cuts is demonstrated by the postponement of the measures for one year in Scotland- even if the cynical motivation is the same, with Tories, LibDems and the incumbent SNP all hoping to soften the expected backlash at the May 2011 Assembly elections.
The actions of the mini-coalition leadership of the council in Birmingham are perhaps the most brutal. Almost 26,000 local authority staff (all the council’s non-teaching employees) have been threatened with redundancy and issued with legal notices informing them that their pay and conditions have been cut.The impact of either redundancies or pay cuts will be severe, not only for the workers and their families and all those who rely on the services provided. But it will also have a direct negative impact on the local economy.
These can be measured in terms of employment and incomes. There are both direct and indirect effects of reducing employment in the public sector. The indirect effect falls mainly on the private sector. This is shown in the table below, from analysis of the Input-Output tables, and is published by the Scottish government . Type I effects in this table are the direct impacts of a change in the employment levels or incomes of the sector. Type II effects include the indirect effect from those changes on other sectors (arising from changes in demand for supplies to the sector, and in demand arising from changes wage totals, etc).
Likewise, if incomes (pay) are cut by £1mn in public administration, the direct effect will be to reduce incomes by £1.35mn as the loss to spending power multiplies through the economy. But, as incomes in other sectors are also adversely affected, this total loss of income rises to £1.6mn. These losses mainly take place in the locality where the initial cuts are made, since middle and lower income workers spend the overwhelming bulk of the pay locally.
Therefore, if 1,000 jobs are cut in public administration the direct effect will be to create 1,410 total job losses mainly as private sector activity is also hit. As jobs are also hit in those sectors the total job losses arising from the initial job losses of 1,000 rises to 1,760.
Outsourcing, PrivatisationIn the case of Birmingham, any redundancies will cause private sector job losses, and any reduction in pay will have the same effect. The actions of Suffolk county council also directly impact 26,000 workers, although here the mechanism is to cut 30% of the budget and outsource the entirety of its current service provision- in all areas. Community groups, volunteer and charities are supposed to fill the gap. But in reality, the bulk of all outsourced services will go to the private sector, where the compulsion to secure profits will mean either a worse service and fewer jobs, or higher costs than via council provision.
In both the Birmingham and Suffolk cases a policy of reducing public services and jobs in order to boost the profits of the private sector is being dressed up with the rhetoric of “fairness” and “democracy”. There will be more dishonest rhetoric, and greater damage done to the wider economy as the programme of cuts deepens.As I have already shown in Tribune, the alternative approach, investing to boost the economy, already had a limited but definite beneficial effect in the UK, due to measures taken by the Labour government, and has already shrunk the budget deficit. The fall is a modest one, but that is a function of the very small boost to the economy from the 2009 Budget. The general proposition is that cuts lead to a disastrous slump and deficit-widening, while government spending focused on investment increases wider activity, which reduces the deficit. This is very clear from the different trajectories of Irish and Spanish economic activity and their public deficits – an issue I have looked at in detail on the Guardian’s Comment is Free.