Leading article: Cuts that smack more of desperation than strategy

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The Independent Online

After the turkey, it's time for sales. For retailers, an opportunity to pile high and sell cheap; anything to shift unwanted stock and free up space. That same retail-based mentality seems to have seized the minds of coalition ministers as they move into 2011. They, too, plan on starting 2011 with January sales.

As we report today, the Government is trying to sell off 140 nature reserves, ranging from the Lizard in Cornwall to Lindisfarne in the North-east, which Natural England has managed until now. The potential savings appear tiny. Together, these outstanding sites cost the taxpayer less than £10m a year.

The same bean-counting attitude is reflected in other cost-cutting measures destined to take effect in the next few weeks. The Booktrust charity, which has provided children under 11 with free books since 1992, is about to lose its entire Government grant, saving taxpayers £13m a year.

Meanwhile, music teaching in schools faces an uncertain future with the planned withdrawal in March of the ring-fence of £82m a year around the subject.

Not all these planned sales or cuts are as straightforward as they first appear. The Lizard peninsula and the land around the shrine to St Cuthbert in Northumberland are not being sold off to developers. The Government simply wants to shift the management and costs of these reserves to equivalent tried and trusted independent bodies such as the RSPB.

The scrapping of ring-fenced spending around music is not exactly a cut. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, insists that the idea is not to reduce the total amount of money that is given to schools but to give head teachers more freedom to decide how best to use the financial resources that they have been allocated.

There is a respectable philosophical case to be made for such freedom in decision-making and it is one that clearly appeals to a thinking man like Mr Gove, one of the brightest minds on the libertarian wing of the Conservative party.

The problem is that what sounds good on paper often turns out less satisfactorily in practice. Music teachers, for one, fear that giving schools more liberty to manage their funds will almost certainly lead most schools to divert money away from supposedly non-essential subjects such as music towards other subjects that are closer to the core of the curriculum.

An additional problem with these cuts and changes to the way that money is allocated is that they will not make a significant difference in the larger scheme of things. They will not help Britain to reduce its deficit. The total annual cost of the nature reserves in question is no larger than many a banker's recent Christmas bonus. The same can be said for the grant awarded to Booktrust, the threat to which has drawn angry complaints about cultural vandalism from a number of leading writers. These all look like savings being made for the sake of making savings.

There is, of course, hope that some of the proposals for 2011 will end up in the Whitehall wastepaper basket. The worry is that the final decision about each grant will depend mainly on the decibel level of the row that it generates, and that if one grant is saved, some other equally useful, not very expensive Government-financed body – perhaps one with less powerful supporters than Booktrust – will be left to take the hit instead.

Except for among a handful of deficit deniers, there is acceptance of the need for substantial reductions in public spending if Britain's economy is to be put on a stable footing. But the case for cuts is not strengthened when, as in these examples, it is presented with more zeal than discrimination.