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Comment: We know you’re all suffering, but aren’t we great?
Over the last half a decade, voters have been subjected to a dour monologue from our political classes about “austerity”.
The country’s dire financial state means grave choices needed to be taken about what the public purse can and cannot stretch to.
Nationally the political battle is waged with wads of soporific economic statistics and data. But in Hertfordshire, the war wounds of the age of austerity can be plainly seen for themselves. Or not if you are out and about after midnight, when the streetlights go out.
Over the last three years, central Government has butchered budgets and this forces local politicians to wield the axe on services as key as the police and streetlights. Yet in Hertfordshire, the austerity narrative breaks off abruptly when it comes to an emerging trend of taxpayers’ money being used for charitable giveaways, which are then rebranded as political largesse.
The latest iteration of this fad appeared last week when police commissioner David Lloyd announced the list of recipients of his £150,000 fund.
The pot was divvied up among a diverse range of schemes from funding neighbourhood watch window stickers and projects to help prevent prisoners returning to crime once they’ve served their sentence, to a community cricket match between the police and residents in Watford.
The announcement of the lucky recipients was accompanied by a concerted PR fanfare. The scheme has been branded as the Commissioner’s Community Fund (in case anyone was in doubt as to who the supposed benefactor was) and a detailed press release sent to newspapers across the county.
No one would begrudge money going to worthy causes. But watching politicians using public money to paint themselves in a generous light is a less edifying spectacle.
The optics of this politically-hijacked charitable giveaway are not fantastic at a time police’s current difficult financial situation, which is seeing it cut more than 100 officer and staff roles.
Mr Lloyd’s community fund follows Hertfordshire County Council’s locality grant scheme, which sees each of its 77 councillors given £10,000 to hand out to causes and organisations of their choice.
This paper has been critical in the past of the way the scheme is presented to the public. Council spin doctors pump out thousands of press releases about these grants which portray the councillors as latter-day St Nicks, munificently handing out taxpayers’ money as if they were digging into their own pockets.
Meanwhile, the county council has recently been looking at how well its streetlight switch-off, which sees lampposts turned off between midnight and 6am to save cash, has gone. According to official figures this has helped save the council £1.38 million a year – more than £200,000 up on what was predicted in the scheme’s business case, officials were keen to impress.
However, such saving seems a pittance when the council still spends close to £800,000 on its locality vanity scheme.
Its Conservative leaders clearly feel taxpayers’ money is better spent in an attempt to burnish their reputations rather than provide a streetlighting for the county. In the age of austerity, politicians have shown little compunction cutting back key services which residents rely on.
Yet it appears not to have stopped them using public funds – our money– to style themselves as the philanthropic patrons of charitable causes.
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