Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Ritual game

There is a ritual game played every winter when councils, police authorities and the like bemoan the settlement which they have received from central government. They always talk in dire terms about the cuts that they will have to make to services - and always illustrate the point by using a high profile aspect of their activities as part of the game. However generous the settlement, it will never be enough, and the rules of the game require an annual complaint to be made.

In that context, my first reaction to the suggestion by the Chief Constable of South Wales that her force will cease to police the M4 was to assume that it was just part of the usual ritual.

I don't know whether her assessment of the state of finances of her force is right or wrong. I do know from local government experience that the finances of such a large organisation are always much more complex than is immediately apparent, and that when the game is lost (as it invariably is), the relevant treasurer (with, of course, the appropriate warnings and caveats) manages to produce a balanced budget which somehow avoids the doomsday scenarios which were inevitable just a few weeks earlier. Still, it all helps to justify the level of tax rise being proposed, and the Chief Constable's statement was made as part of an attempt to justify a 9.8% rise in tax, after all.

But on further thought, this is a bit more than the usual game. This isn't just drawing attention to high profile services and saying that services will be threatened by a lack of cash. This is a public servant threatening publicly to cease performing statutory duties in an attempt to extract more money from the government. That's outside the usual rules of the game – and it oversteps the mark.

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