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What began as a rumour following the savage Government Spending Review of October 20th 2010 has now gained more credence. Last week, an anonymous Council source spoke out about a proposed merger between Hackney and Haringey Council to take in certain core Benefit services. These could range from Council Tax Benefits to Employment Support Allowance to Incapacity Benefits and thus have a wide-ranging impact on citizens of both Boroughs.
Although there has been no official confirmation from either Council it seems inevitable that such a merger would be considered in the wake of the Conservatives Spending Review. This detailed that Hackney Council must slash it’s own funds by £26 million for next year. The view beyond 2011/2012 is even bleaker with the looming need to total a cut of £70 million over the next four years. Haringey Council looks set to suffer approximately £60 million in cuts off next year’s budget although the exact figure is still being deliberated. These frontloaded cuts force the hand of both Council’s.
Jules Pipe, the Mayor of Hackney, has tried to assuage fears by promising constituents he “will listen to the priorities of local people to ensure that they are reflected in the difficult decisions that will need to be made over the coming years”. The first of these difficult decisions needed to meet the drastic shortfall in income could well be the announcement of a merger.
Hackney and Haringey would be following the model recently outlined in West London for a ‘Super Council’. This is due to take in the Boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster. Their proposal was inevitably heaped with praise by Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, who said “these Councils are leading the way in local government and voters will expect others to get on board and follow suit”. A superficial glance at mergers would seem to endorse this view.
As an austerity measure a merger would immediately prove cost-efficient. Instead of separate HR departments there would be just one, administration costs would be halved, sharing of premises would save money and all items purchased on Council orders such as games equipment for schools would be significantly cheaper in a bulk purchase. Essentially, the pooling of resources and sharing of services would reduce both Hackney and Haringey Council’s wastage costs and minimise any duplication of services.
Yet mergers are not the guaranteed success the Conservatives would have us believe. Myriad difficulties face Hackney and Haringey Council’s if they go ahead with the proposal. There would be two different sets of voters vying for their voice to be heard. This would inevitably lead to claims that one area was being given preferential treatment over the other. A ‘Super Council’ would create monolith Benefit Departments that would seem far removed from any individual or a particular estate. Surely more destitute people would fall through the cracks if the system were any bigger? There would also be the sticky issue of equalising Council Tax rates between Hackney and Haringey, which could well leave the latter’s constituents facing much higher rates.
Ideology also has a role to play. Hackney and Haringey are very different areas with very different sets of problems, which the respective Councils must work to address. Merging the two Councils in any guise will force different value systems, different operative systems and different types of personnel into one homogeneous grouping.
The fear for this proposal is two-fold; Haringey will essentially be dwarfed and marginalised by the far larger Hackney Council and job losses will be devastating. However, has the Conservative Government left our local Councils with no other choice?