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Mission Impossible: The Graph of Doom

17 Jan 2013 - 19:31 by Mike Wild

Yesterday morning I went to the briefing where the City Council announced their budget plans for the next 2 years. The key message is bleak: beyond the £170m cut from the Council’s annual budget in 2011, they now have to cut a further £80m per year. Manchester, it was said, has been hit hardest out of all the boroughs in Greater Manchester and out of all the major cities outside London.

I don’t envy any of the Councillors or officers who had to do all the work to pull the proposals together. Never mind the brain-mashing complexity of local government financial models, cutting back services which are needed is not what anyone goes into public service to do. We can (and will) argue on where the cuts should be: I need to look at the detail and that takes a lot longer. Saying there is a further saving of £41m to be found from the children and adults services budgets doesn’t mean anything unless you can see what the impact is going to be on people who need support. This isn’t going to be a response to the Budget itself. That’s for another day.

In some ways, the most chilling of all the statements this morning was that by 2018 the City Council will only be able to afford to meet its basic statutory duties. This is demonstrated by ‘the Graph of Doom’ in which the increasing cost and demand for services gradually overtakes the amount of money available to pay for them. 2018 is when it happens. (You can see the graph in the Council’s ‘Strategic Response’ document – click here to download.)

My first reaction is to get very angry at seeing how Manchester is trapped by the combined impacts of high levels of deprivation, worldwide recession, eye-watering cuts from Government and a welfare reform agenda which is hitting many of the most vulnerable people harder than anyone else. In that sense, it doesn’t matter about the politics behind this: you can have perfectly logical arguments about small state versus big state, dependency and self-reliance. What I cannot see how anyone can honestly call this situation ‘fair’.

But being angry doesn’t change anything other than my blood pressure. Fans of Public Image Ltd will know that anger is an energy – getting angry is when the adrenalin kicks in and you begin to do something. You have to find somewhere to start. My approach is that I need start by seeing the landscape around me. Then I can begin to get an idea of what I think Macc and local voluntary and community groups can do about all of this.

The landscape is, obviously, Manchester. The whole economy of Manchester – I don’t just mean the ‘business’ economy, I mean in the place as a whole. The Centre for Local Economic Strategies has a deft way of describing the economy of an area as being made up of the public, commercial and social economies. The City Council’s budget plans are obviously the big player in the public economy and have an ambition to help reinflate the commercial economy getting more business to get more people into jobs and so on. That’s certainly important, but when the voluntary and community sector is at its best it’s ingenious and creative: and that's the social economy.

So, where to start? In some ways, I think we heard part of the answer the day before. On Tuesday, the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission published their findings. You can find all the details at www.povertymanchester.org/ but the recommendations were:

  • Promote initiatives designed to reduce energy bills across Greater Manchester.
  • Increase access to affordable finance and financial support services to improve financial literacy.
  • Create a coordinated and sustainable approach to tackling food poverty.
  • Increase access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Explore ways of providing transport for residents in poverty.
  • Reduce digital exclusion by providing subsidised broadband and increasing provision of free ICT literacy learning.
  • Review the supply and demand of free legal advice services in Greater Manchester.
  • Improve the availability of quality childcare provision across the sub-region.
  • All public services in Greater Manchester should be 'poverty proofed'.
  • Improve the planning and coordination of voluntary sector service to tackle poverty.
  • Develop a Greater Manchester Living Wage campaign.
  • Build upon and maximise the Greater Manchester City Deal to increase the benefits disadvantaged communities experience from economic growth.
  • Ensure all strategies within the sub-region designed to promote growth also have realistic plans for addressing poverty.
  • The Greater Manchester Combined Authority should take forward the work of the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission by establishing a Poverty Action Group.
  • Develop a neighbourhood level Greater Manchester Poverty Index.
  • Join forces with the Fairness Commissions in Liverpool, York Newcastle and London to campaign and lobby on common issues.

Part of my job is to think about what Macc can do to help the local voluntary and community sector address all of these things. Actually, the sector is already working on many of them and has been for years: but there must be more we can do and I agree completely that joining things together with planning and co-ordination within the sector is important.

One of the things I’ve always believed about the voluntary and community sector is that ultimately our job is to do everything we can do not to be needed any more. Just at the moment, that seems further away than I can ever remember. So, we’ll feed in our comments to the Council about their budget but even more important we need our own ideas and our own plan.

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