Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest to answer and that definitely applies when it comes to all things Brexit. I was recently asked what I thought the impact of Brexit would be on local government frontline services and after a pause and a few caveats I was able to give an answer which sounded something akin to the famous Donald Rumsfeld response about ‘known knowns and unknown unknowns.’
We already know that the devaluation of the pound following the referendum has increased the cost of UK imports like construction materials for housing and highways, plant and equipment for fleet, refuse and grounds maintenance; food ingredients for school meals and even chemicals and cleaning supplies for janitorial responsibilities.
Reading the recent announcements from Public Health Minister, Steve Brine, about the new trailblazer programme to tackle childhood obesity I couldn’t help but wonder whether there is any joined up policy thinking taking place on domestic matters whilst the shadow of Brexit remains looming large over the country.
Whilst any new money is welcomed by local government, alongside the ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030, a competition where local authorities can bid to be one of five winners who will receive £100k a year for three years to come up with innovative ideas around active lifestyles and healthy eating, isn’t going to push back the tide on the problem when a tsunami of cuts is coming in the other direction and overwhelming public health initiatives; closing parks; forcing greenspace sell offs; and causing significant reductions in accessible sports and leisure facilities.
Another week, another warning. If we don’t address the funding pressure building in the system around adults and childrens’ social care services then local governments ability to fulfil its more general responsibilities, to its communities, will implode.
So will Government address this impending catastrophe through new fiscal raising proposals in the imminent social care green paper or deal with it in next year’s comprehensive spending review? Or will we remain like mindless zombies on a relentless march to fulfil the predictions contained within various versions of the graph of doom? That money will run out for anything other than statutory services and even then such protection will be severely tested.
Many ingredients go into making a community a place where people are proud to live and work, so is there a danger of eroding local government’s ability to place-shape effectively as a result of a series of policy decisions and funding cuts?
Previous governments’ strategies for neighbourhood renewal seem a distant memory, alongside the levels of accessible funding that went alongside them. Whilst criticism existed of approaches being overly centralist, ‘funding with strings attached’, local government remains at the mercy of central government policy decisions and delivering budget cuts is the only thing in which it seems to have more freedom.
Recent events in Northamptonshire have hammered home the message that local government has reached a tipping point in terms of its finances. Anyone who thinks that the problems faced at the County Council are unique is in for a rude awakening. In this context is it time for a new municipalism?
With policy pressures piling up and budgets diminishing rapidly for many services it is time for local authorities to take back control of their areas by reclaiming entrepreneurship, rather than the outdated thinking that someone else should do this for them. This is not about acting commercially in the blind pursuit of income generation but to identify the major policy puzzles facing communities and thinking creatively and innovatively about how to solve these policy conundrums. Where markets have failed to deliver the outcomes that local communities need then it’s time for local councils to step up to the plate.
From the eighties up until the late-noughties a fairly stable orthodoxy existed amongst many senior policymakers that the transfer of large swathes of local government services to national outsourcing companies was a good thing, would bring much needed investment, transformation of approach and efficiency in delivery. Anyone who dared question the reality of what outcomes would actually be achieved was ostracised and branded as a dinosaur by the industry that built up around the sector.
In APSE, we always try to look for tangible evidence and think through the long-term outcomes in any suggested approach to delivering local government services and it’s therefore fair to say that we held a fairly healthy scepticism of much of the claims of risk transfer, widespread additional employment benefits and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. From around 2005 onwards we also started to see many contracts which harked back to the CCT days or which were early strategic partnerships start to run out of steam and councils start to insource them.
A recent APSE opinion poll, conducted by Survation, exploring public opinion on neighbourhood services, found that yet again, the public give parks the highest satisfaction ratings amongst all local government services, however we also know that parks are one of the hardest hit services as a result of austerity, with many facing an uncertain future.
Anyone who reads the local government sectoral journals is well versed in the graph of doom scenario and the squeeze it creates on non-statutory services. The £3B of cuts that have hit England’s neighbourhood services are playing out harshly on the average parks services and for the most deprived areas the impact of austerity is felt all the more harshly.
It was a hugely symbolic moment when Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced £2bn of additional funding for a new generation of council housing during her speech at the recent Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Whilst it doesn’t quite take us back to the 1950’s when Housing Minister Harold McMillan enhanced his future Prime Ministerial credentials by building over 300,000 new homes in a single year, around 200,000 of which were council houses, it shows an eventual acceptance by Government that we are not going to tackle one of the biggest public policy challenges of our time without State intervention.
While successive Governments have talked about housing need, population growth, changing demographics and set ever increasing targets for the amount of homes required, we have seen little success on closing the gap between the numbers of homes needed and the amount of new builds actually taking place.
The recent report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, ‘Lifting the lid on bin complaints’, has reignited the debate around outsourced services and whether local government gets value for money from such contracts.
To my mind what the report highlights is the disconnect that can sometimes take place between the council, the contractor and the service user, when a contract is outsourced. Just because a service is outsourced it doesn’t mean that the public don’t think that the council isn’t responsible for it or should have democratic oversight of the service and when they complain they expect their issues to be addressed by the council and blame them if there is a slow response, rather than the contractor.
There are some who criticise local government as being bureaucratic and lacking in creativity. In reality, local councils are being highly innovative in plugging the income gaps left by ongoing austerity and there is something of a renaissance in municipal investments.
APSE and CIPFA property services set out to identity the scale, scope and advantages of municipal investments and the results of our research have found councils taking a measured approach to investments designed to balance risk and rewards. In many ways asset investments allow councils to convert capital investment into revenue - helping them to sustain local services.