THE BLOG

Cutting Deep

13/03/2015 11:08 GMT | Updated 12/05/2015 10:59 BST

It's not often one can enjoy a great drama and at the same time get a fix of local government content.

But for a short while a play in London's theatreland gave both. Hope by Jack Thorne, which run over Christmas at the Royal Court Theatre, was not only a great play with great acting but it was a real window into what local councillors are having to do every day in these times of austerity.

To cut or to resist the imposition of cuts? And if to cut, what to cut and how to do it in tune with whatever values you hold? And, as the play graphically showed - not least in its use of a disabled actor as part of a community whose services are under threat - seeing and having to face up to the pain of those whose services you do decide to cut.

Although the themes were universal (which thankfully made the play of interest to non-local government geeks) - do you go along with something you don't agree with because at least you can make it less bad, for example, or do you just refuse to accept the rules of the game at all? - the focus was on a council that had already made some pretty big cuts, now having to make millions more.

It had it all: the party group splitting apart as to whether it ought to do this at all; fierce internal lobbying about whether it was going to be children's centres or community activities for the old and disabled that took the brunt; whether cuts were going to be mostly in the 'safe', poorer wards where citizens would probably suffer most if they were faced with cuts in public services, or mostly in the 'marginal', more prosperous wards, where a few votes could swing the political leadership of the council, regardless of the objective relative needs of the inhabitants.

Delightfully, when the council ultimately decides to go for refusing to play and not to set a budget at all, in came an appointee of Eric Pickles to make the cuts in a way that was not sensitive to local conditions and the local electorate. At this point even activists who had once argued for a 'no cuts' approach condemned the councillors for effectively outsourcing the decision to a government apparatchik with no local roots or accountability.

This was just fiction, of course, but as we look ahead to the next few years, versions of this scene will be replayed in council chambers (and what were once called smoked-filled rooms) all over the country. For while the shade of coalition or minority government we look likely to have after 7 May will affect the intensity of cuts and the exact need for hard decisions, the basic bearing-down on local government expenditure looks set to stay for a good while longer.

These are difficult decisions, whatever your politics. They cannot avoid hurting individuals and groups, even if one believes that they are the right things for the country in the longer run. Perhaps more than this, the play illustrates the stress it can inflict on local councillors: on personal relationships, between colleagues, friends and even family. The effect of being forced to make these decisions is lain bare.

In the best of times being a councillor is often a thankless task. In today's times it is perhaps a miracle that anyone still wants to do the job. In my view they deserve a great deal of thanks from us all.