The Labour Party has been consistently lambasted in the Tory press as a party which simply wishes to spend the taxpayers’ hard-earned cash. Hence, the label of being the “tax-and-spend” party. Whilst I have little faith in the press (yesterday’s Echo politics online page led with a story on the celebrity line-up for the forthcoming “Strictly Come Dancing “!!!), it ill behoves Labour councils to give them a free ride.
I mention this having seen the latest figures on council spend, published by the Office of National Statistics. They are for the year 2016/17, and refer to current expenditure by service, listing every council in the country. The figures sometimes vary between councils – and ought to – reflecting local priorities; sometimes they do not. Comparing Liverpool to Leeds, for example, both have committed about 20% of their total spend to adult social care. There are minor fluctuations between the two cities in other categories of expenditure.
There is, however, one striking variation in spend – on central services. Leeds spends 1% of its spend here – about £6.7 million. Liverpool, on the other hand, spends 6.7% of its money here – a massive £53,767,000! There may be an explanation of sorts for this, but the immediate suggestion is of a bloated, centralised bureaucracy. It throws fresh light on the Anderson/Fitzgerald proposal of a £7 million bureaucracy for the metromayor/combined authority. Steve Rotheram was wise to state that, if elected, he would veto this extravagance.
It is not as if Liverpool’s neighbouring authorities are seen as profligate with central services. In fact, Liverpool‘s spend exceeds by over £7 million, the total of the other five councils put together. They obviously recognise that there are other priority calls upon their hard-pressed funding.
This imbalance in Liverpool’s expenditure reflects the centralisation of power in the hands of the mayor and the chief executive. Other expenditure categories largely demand fixed amounts of expenditure (areas like education, social care and environmental services) on a year-on-year basis. The accumulation of such a large amount under the nebulous heading of central services, allows the mayor and his chief executive huge discretion when it comes to spending.
The crucial point is that this is simply not transparent, not effectively scrutinised, nor, to a great degree, politically accountable. This is not the hallmark of a healthy, democratic process, and it would be appropriate for the council to explain why it is so out of kilter in this area. Except, that is, for the fact that there is no objective forum wherein that demand might be made, and satisfied.