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Blog from Paul O'Brien

June 11, 2020
In praise of parks

The current crisis created by COVID-19 has forced us all to think deeply about what we value in our everyday lives and when push comes to shove, our own health and the health of our families comes into sharp focus. Perhaps therefore it’s about time that the rich health benefits that local government parks services bring to society receive much greater appreciation.

A huge emphasis has been placed by UK Governments during lockdown on focusing on the publics’ physical health and mental well-being. Local authority parks services have demonstrated, throughout the current crisis that they have been at the forefront of public health for local people and have an intrinsic part to play in the short and long-term recovery of local communities. The return on investment, by local and national governments, in parks services is colossal.

Over the past few months many have turned to parks as their daily release from the pressures of lockdown, not only to provide some peace and tranquillity in the fresh air, but to also give them their much-needed daily exercise, boosting their immune system in the process. Much has been made of a potential obesity crisis fuelled by the recent period of inactivity, however parks have helped mitigate against this and can continue to do so, by supporting active lifestyles.

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Tags: Local government, APSE, parks, community cohesion, quality of life, place, Neighbourhoods, public finances
April 24, 2020
Financing the frontline through and beyond COVID-19

Could the impact of COVID-19 on local authority finance be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back for many frontline services already emaciated over the past decade by austerity?


APSE has written extensively in the past about budget reductions which have seen authorities lose 60p in the pound from funding provided to them by Government since 2010. This has had a hugely disproportionate impact on the frontline neighbourhood services that the public value the greatest. These huge cuts, compounded by significant rises in demand, across council activities, have squeezed the life out of these often non-statutory services.


With the demand for social care budgets increasing hugely in the current period this will squeeze other frontline services even further. And whilst the public recognise the importance of social care to many of the most vulnerable and needy people at present, the vast majority don’t experience social care in their daily lives.


APSE’s own public opinion polling carried out with Survation shows that most people really value refuse collection, public realm, parks, roads and street cleaning. It is my belief that this love of the frontline has only been enhanced over the past few weeks when these weary warriors have stepped up to the plate yet again and delivered, when everyone else has been placed in a state of suspended animation by lockdown. It would be a real tragedy for local government if this greatly increased recognition of the role it plays in keeping society functioning in the toughest of circumstances is quickly lost by a failure to fund properly these very services in the future.
 

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Tags: APSE, frontline services, Public health, tax, council tax, local tax, refuse collection, Street Cleansing, cemetries and cremetoria, public opinion, public opinion
April 10, 2020
Let's show some sensible behaviour in our Parks this Easter

As we approach the Easter weekend local authority’s parks services will be in sharp focus and will be bracing themselves for what will be a major test of public behaviour as we reach the peak of the curve of COVID-19.


APSE carried out a survey of council parks managers on 8 April to assess what is happening on the ground, with over 90 responses received from across the UK.


To date Government advice has been to keep parks open to allow for exercise, so long as people comply with social distancing guidelines. The survey shows that almost all parks and urban spaces remain open and almost all are keeping at least some of their country parks accessible at present.


In relation to social distancing 79% are saying that nearly all visitors are observing social distancing. Some are experiencing some problems with certain groups, with 63% saying groups of youths have been occasionally problematic, although smaller percentages saying issues have also arisen with exercise groups, cyclists and families.

 

 

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Tags: APSE, parks, COVID-19, local communities, councils
February 20, 2020
A need for money and powers to respond to climate emergency

It is inarguable that the last decade in local government was tough financially. Every public policy initiative, every council budget was seemingly dominated by relentless austerity. That has not gone away. However, with climate emergency declarations by local councils now standing at 65% coverage across the UK it would appear that this, not austerity, is our zeitgeist for the next decade.


Declaring an emergency is only a statement of intent; a recognition that urgent action is needed. Some have found that their passionate pledges in the council chamber can give birth to a much starker reality. Action on climate change is devoid of quick fixes. As a first step councils need to establish what is within the scope of their declaration. Is this just about decarbonising councils’ services or is it broader? Looking at supply chains or sub-regional economies? And what pledges can be made about those areas where the council is not simply the sole-trader such as municipal airports or transport infrastructure which invokes national agencies? When we start to peel back the covers issues may seem insurmountable. But this is not the case if action is properly planned.
 

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Tags: Climate change, APSE, councils, Local government, renewable energy, local government finance, planning powers
December 24, 2019
Time for Ministers to trust councils to deliver for communities

The country recently elected a new parliament to Westminster, so what will the public want to see at the top of ministerial in-trays?


It’s very timely that Survation has just completed APSE’s annual polling of public opinion on local government services. What it finds is that satisfaction with services is starting to drop and people are noticing a decline in their locality. They are also saying they want to see more of the tax that they pay given to councils to spend in their local area.


If the new Government want to demonstrate that the decade associated with austerity has passed then the public clearly want to see visible improvements across their neighbourhood services. This means investment across everything from public realm to affordable housing. Social care also remains important in public opinion but this is balanced against these wider priorities.


A consistent trend is that trust is continuously increasing in councils and councillors to get decisions correct about their local area and to deliver services directly to local people.


 

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Tags: APSE, local communities, Local government, councils, councillors, public realm, local government finance, council tax, public opinion, climate change
November 12, 2019
Managing in an austerity ravaged local government

Management of frontline services in local government has changed dramatically over the last decade in terms of scope, complexity and span of control – has this been truly recognised in organisational status, by professional institutes or by training providers?


APSE recently completed a review of the skills required for 21st century parks management for MHCLG’s Parks Action Group and what became obvious almost immediately was that austerity has reshaped the competency framework requirements for such roles at a rapid rate. Traditional parks management skills requirements could have been identified on one flower with seven petals with each petal a skill, fast forward a decade and they now require five flowers with the same array of petals.




 

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Tags: Local government, apse, parks, austerity, management, leadership, income generation, Commercialisation
August 19, 2019
Tackling the housing crisis

Will new Housing Minister Esther McVey succeed where her predecessors have failed and finally make significant inroads to solving the housing crisis? Only if she recognises that 100 years on from the Addison Act local authorities must once again play a key role in delivering quality affordable housing.’

 

There are three main areas of Government housing policy that APSE has called for action on in our latest research, with the Town and Country Planning Association, ‘Housing for a fairer society’.

 

The first issue is delivering and retaining genuinely affordable housing. A good start would be for Government to reinstate a definition of affordability that is linked to income. Government also needs to provide significantly more direct grant for social rental homes. It should also suspend the right to buy in England as happened in Scotland and Wales, where the numbers of council houses are increasing, for the first time in a generation. In the meantime, Councils should be allowed to keep 100% of their right to buy receipts to reinvest in building. The current validity test also needs reformed in order to close loopholes that allow developers to avoid contributing affordable housing.

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Tags: Housing, housing crisis, council housing, permitted development, right to buy, validity test, APSE, TCPA
July 4, 2019
Turning up the volume on climate change emergency

The prevailing issue that has exercised the minds of those in local government for the last decade has been dealing with the impact of austerity. Whilst rumours of its demise may be somewhat premature it is likely to be overtaken by something that may have an even more fundamentally profound impact on councils, dominating almost every decision they make over the next decade – that of climate change. 


Whilst many councils are alert to this agenda, with dozens declaring climate change emergencies, particularly in response to high profile public protests by young people, it is easy to move the date you expect to be carbon neutral forwards by ten years or so, but unless you focus on deliverables then achieving such aspirations could prove to be difficult in practice. The clock is ticking. There is an urgent need to move beyond strategising and rhetoric to making significant progress. 

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Tags: Climate change, local communities, Local government, waste management, APSE, highways, street lighting, local government finance
May 13, 2019
Being a chief officer in a changing local government world

For those MJ readers of a certain age they will no doubt remember the magical world of Mr Benn; as a spaceman, a zookeeper, a cook or a diver. The adventures were always captivating and of course he received his souvenir medal once he returned through the changing room at the fancy-dress shop where his adventures commenced from. Now you may of course be wondering what Mr Benn’s has to do with local government? Well the current crop of chief officers, those who report directly to chief executives, often find themselves in a Mr Benn like world.
 
Local government was once a place of Weberian style municipal discipline; clearly defined roles and with that silo working, along delineated professional functions. Planners did planning. Engineers did Highways. Mr Benn would have stayed bedecked in his bowler hat! Today’s local authority chief officers, not only look different from that bygone era but are increasingly working under different guises; changing costumes to suit the adventures of the day.

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Tags: Local government, chief officers, Commercialisation, local government finance, partnerships
February 22, 2019
Time for some honesty on how local taxes are spent

It’s time for an honest conversation about tax in the UK. Successive Governments have pledged not to increase the tax burden on the public in their manifestos and then once in power they put in place policies that do the opposite.


Just look at the shift that has taken place in tax revenues since austerity started. In 2010, local government’s core spending power of £50B was around 80% funded from local tax yield with a further 20% subsidy from direct taxation. Fast forward to 2019 and the £46B or so that local government will receive in core spending power in the coming year, is outstripped by the £52B that will be raised in local taxation. Local taxation is now clearly subsidising national spending. 


Local people and local businesses are now paying significantly more in council tax and business rates for the services they receive at a time when many of the neighbourhood services, that determine the look and the feel of the place, are being decimated. Add to this the fact that fees and charges have also either been introduced or increased, in order to try and hold local services together and we really are testing people’s patience.
 

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Tags: APSE, Local government, local tax, austerity, council tax, business rates, fees and charges, Neighbourhoods, fair funding review, comprehensive spending review

Promoting excellence in public services

APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence) is a not for profit unincorporated association working with over 300 councils throughout the UK. Promoting excellence in public services, APSE is the foremost specialist in local authority frontline services, hosting a network for frontline service providers in areas such as waste and refuse collection, parks and environmental services, cemeteries and crematorium, environmental health, leisure, school meals, cleaning, housing and building maintenance.

 

 

 

 

 

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