As British Summer Time comes to an official end (despite reaching its unofficial end in around the third week of July), and colder weather starts to bite, local authorities across the country will be preparing to put their cold weather plans into action. All of us who work in and around local government know just how much effort and resource goes into managing our local areas and looking after vulnerable customers over the colder months, aside from the obvious (and huge) expense of gritting roads and dealing with extra contact from the public as councils disseminate information on closed schools and roads etc.
At the same time, in an article in the LGC (£) last week, Stephen Hughes of Birmingham outlined why he sees current spending cuts in the sector as heralding the end of outsourcing as we know it. Quite simply, making efficiencies in delivering the services authorities currently deliver is no longer enough to make ends meet – “with this scale of reduction, local authorities have to change from servicing all demand they face, to finding ways to manage and reduce demand for services”.
This made me think of an incredibly interesting policy update from SOLACE the BDOlocalgov team were given recently, where the ‘Boston contradiction’ of cold weather local government plans was pointed out:
- If residents of the City of Boston, Massachusetts don’t clear a 42 inch wide pathway through the snow on their pavements they can be fined the equivalent of £175 for each day snow remains on the pathway
- In Boston, Lincolnshire, most pavements are considered highways, and so fall under the remit of councils to clear and grit.
Obviously, local government finances would not be restored to their pre-CSR days by fining residents who don’t clear their pavements from snow, and admittedly we do (mostly!) benefit from a less extreme climate than Massachusetts.
However, the Boston contradiction does raise an important question and challenge for authorities going forwards, as we realise that the age of austerity in local government is not a temporary situation, but more likely will necessitate a complete rethinking of the role our councils play in society.
How do we stop providing services in certain areas, and pass responsibility back to citizens where possible? Yes, in some cases citizens are ready to get going and pick up the mantle as soon as they’re given the go ahead by councils (we have seen many communities stepping up to deliver meals on wheels services where they are being withdrawn, for example), but for the most part, we have become so used to the service being provided by our authorities that for them to stop doing so would create an uproar and require an extremely strong political stomach.
A starting point could be to encourage and enable communities to take over services where there is a will to do so. Cambridgeshire Council’s 2010 instruction to residents to not clear their own drives due to insurance regulations, and my friend’s recent battle with her authority for permission to plant bulbs and weed the lawn on her housing estate, ring a bell here. We will not win the demand management battle overnight, and there will of course always be services and customer groups who require more local authority support than others, but to my mind we must seek out the areas where it is possible for citizens to self-serve, and make sure the path is cleared for them to do so. No pun intended.