The Coalition government is formed; the ministerial team are in place and the age old political strategy of blaming the previous incumbents for the finances being worse than initially thought ‘now we have actually seen the books’, has been deployed. So what does this mean for local government? Sadly, budget cuts on a major scale.
This is not something we haven’t anticipated. But the full scale and extent should emerge following new Chancellor George Osborne’s emergency budget on 22 June. Expert estimates vary between 15% and 30% and the fear for those involved on the frontline of local government is that this may fall disproportionately on them due to other areas such as health and education being given ‘protected’ status. There is a touch of irony here as the ‘unprotected’ services did not see the full benefit of the record levels of investment of the last decade due to ringfencing of funding to the areas which are now ‘protected’.
One ‘big society’ experiment appears to be to use many more volunteers, charities and social enterprises to provide services. While there is undoubtedly a valuable role for the third sector in enhancing services, in my view, this should be in partnership with local authorities, not as a replacement for core services – and it certainly should not be regarded as a way of merely cutting costs.
Our first concern is that many people are heavily depend on frontline local government services to achieve a basic quality of living and therefore risks cannot be taken with ideas that have not been fully piloted. Secondly, the level of complexity and technical expertise required to care for elderly people, maintain our highways infrastructure and look after the local environment is often greatly underestimated. Thirdly, where is the tangible evidence to show that this type of approach will actually save money? And finally where is the army of volunteers who can afford the time to replace a skilled and trained local government workforce?
There are numerous ideas being debated at present on how to make budgets balance as funding reduces. APSE remains to be convinced that this one is likely to meet the immediate need. The idea of more public involvement in the delivery of services is laudable and social enterprises can be an important way of achieving this. But will take time – and resources - to develop. It needs to be tested out fully and will require facilitation if it is to flourish.
In the meantime, core frontline services will continue to improve by reducing waste, streamlining processes and utilising new technological developments. This is the only guaranteed way to improve productivity, reduce costs and close funding gaps whilst fulfilling local government’s obligation to meet public need.