The leaders of 119 English Councils have written a letter calling for an end to the savage cuts to council budgets imposed by central Government. The leaders, who cross the political spectrum with 65 Labour leaders, 40 Conservative and 10 Liberal Democrat, go on to say that English people will not accept the proposed Scottish devolution plans without an equal redistribution of power and funds in England.
The lengthy list of signatories is evidence of growing all-party resentment of the way that Council funding is set in Whitehall, with little understanding of local needs. The letter states, “There is compelling evidence that taking decisions closer to the people affected achieves better results and saves money.” Earlier this month, a poll commissioned by the BBC suggested some 80% of people in England supported having more powers devolved to local areas.
Now you’d expect Somerset County Council’s leader to support such an operation, wouldn’t you? After all he’s very fond of looking sad when he has to make his ‘difficult decisions’ and saying that he didn’t come into politics to make cuts. But, no. He failed to sign the letter. He has had plenty of opportunities to stand up for Somerset and demand fair funding – I have invited him to do so repeatedly – but each time, he behaves like an obedient child and doesn’t rock the party boat. If we needed any further evidence that John and his administration are one of the most ideologically-driven council administrations in the UK, then we need look no further than this Conservative failure to join their colleagues in calling for fair funding for Somerset. If John gets his way, Somerset County Council will ultimately comprise him, his cabinet and a few commissioners, meeting up in his front room every few years to let a number of outsourcing contracts. They are hell-bent on slashing services to the maximum extent regardless of the impacts on the people of Somerset and the damage that they are doing. The budgets for Somerset Children’s Services and Adult Social Care have both been shown to be inadequate and the failures laid bare for all to see. But they refuse every opportunity to publicly fight for fair funding. And let’s not forget that this is the same Conservative administration, in which Taunton Deane Conservative candidate Rebecca Pow has expressed her confidence. So much for sticking up for the electorate.
So extreme is the county administration that I don’t recognise them as Conservatives at all. Watching John Major being interviewed a few weeks ago opened a window on to a kinder, more compassionate era of conservatism, similar to the brand that David Cameron promised at the last election and then failed to deliver. Looking back, it is not hard to see how Major had managed, in 1992, to maintain a Conservative majority in difficult economic circumstances. But the modern Conservative party is a rabid reflection of its earlier self with just a small number of old-school ‘one-nation’ Conservative MPs left – the likes of Sarah Wollaston, Ken Clarke, Zac Goldsmith and Dominic Grieve, none of whom feature in Government. As voters look to the General Election next year, they will opt for those candidates that best represent their own views. I am hearing from many Conservatives who are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile their views with such an ideological body of MPs. If and when they come to vote for other candidates, it will not be because they have left their party, but because their party has left them.