We are now in the period leading up to the annual local authority Finance Settlement. This is where £26bn of public expenditure is distributed to local government.
This may be of only passing interest to some readers of Financial Director magazine, but is an event which has defined my career in public finance for more than 20 years.
Presently, the sword of Damocles hangs over us as the secretary of state for communities and local government threatens to deliver the toughest settlement for local government in living memory.
This makes me somewhat nostalgic for my first outing in this field back in the late 1980’s as a young civil servant in the Department of the Environment (the predecessor of Communities & Local Government).
There are similarities; at that time I worked for a strong secretary of state with robust views on cutting public spending. Simultaneously, he embarked on a radical review of local government finance resulting in – the Community Charge – not a brilliant success.
I can still recall the immense stress of working as part of a team attempting to deliver a doomed policy in an impossible situation.
This is why, with Christmas approaching, I would like to send a message of understanding and goodwill to the unsung heroes of the financial world, those officials who put the Finance Settlements together. Shrinking Treasury allocations, unrealistic expectations from politicians and massive problems of risk and technical failure make this exercise one of the ultimate challenges in financial work.
Having experienced this myself some years ago, it has made a lasting impact on me. So at this time of good cheer my goodwill goes out to those officials working hard on the 2011/12 settlement. Happy Christmas to you all, even if you are about to stuff us!
Stephen Fitzgerald is FD for Hounslow Borough Council
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