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.
These already really scarce resources, which have had to be juggled about in a creative manner over a prolonged period of time, are now eventually being recognised as being enormously fundamental to local public health and mental well-being during the coronavirus crisis.
It is unthinkable that at the other side of this, that the public, who have already seen sharp increases in their council tax bills in recent years, will not be asked to pay even more in taxation to try to rebalance the economy. If they see less and less for their money on the ground, amongst the services they value the most, then public opinion could shift very quickly and will be unforgiving. Government would be well advised to remember this when budgeting for life after the current crisis.