I watched the first episode of a three part series of “The Year the Town Hall Shrank” last night (a bit behind, I know, but I am on maternity leave so I have an excuse!). It is hailed as a “landmark documentary series that tells the story of how one city – Stoke on Trent – struggles to cope with the impact of the largest funding cuts to local government ever imposed by central government”. As I watched the difficult and sometimes painful process of having to meet a budget gap of £36m, a number of things struck me. It is encouraging to see that the great challenges and issues with which local authorities have to cope in this age of economic austerity are being given some air time, albeit on BBC4. I was impressed that in only an hour, the report managed to highlight the complexity of the conflict of values that a council has to attempt to reconcile on a daily basis. A whole range of factors affecting decision making processes were constantly at play in the discussions that we saw amongst the councillors, members of public and council officers. Political considerations cropped up. The Mayor advocated that the local authority’s budget be passed to avoid Westminster stepping in. The Leader, it was implied, had re-election on his mind. Economic questions about the relative value of services were debated. The hardest problem was undoubtedly the ethical question of which vulnerable groups within the community would have their services cut, and which wouldn’t.
However, one aspect of this decision making process didn’t get much camera time. The subject of metrics was only very briefly touched upon. We didn’t hear much about the financial, operational and strategic analysis behind the decisions being made about what to cut. Granted it doesn’t make compelling TV, but in trying to prove or disprove relative values, I believe the right measures (such as usage, cost or impact) should be at the heart of the available information upon which difficult decisions should be made. Should a council cut care homes or children centres? And if so, which ones?
A core part of the episode was the political hot potato of closing children’s centres. As part of achieving the required £36m saving to close the budget gap, it was proposed that a proportion of Sure Start Children’s Centres across the city of Stoke be closed. Most likely three or four, out of a total of sixteen would be affected. There was only a thirty second part of the programme in which we saw the Chief Executive, John van de Laarschot, saying that the reason for this proposal was that a number of centres had very low usage. Instead the TV stage was dominated by Melissa, the spokesperson for the “Don’t close the Children’s Centres” campaign. She spoke very passionately and vociferously about the importance of children’s centres to the community. In fact, so vociferous were her comments and so hot was the potato that we saw the Leader, Mohammed Pervez, take the issue off the table and out of the proposed budget.
The fact that a number of these children’s centres had low usage seemed to go unnoticed or was deemed irrelevant. In a time where local authorities are having to deliver services within the most constrained budgets since the Second World War, it would seem to me that the metric of current usage when thinking about whether a children’s centre should remain open is very relevant. It is pretty clear to all, and was well-voiced by Melissa in the programme, that children’s centres do provide an important and worthwhile service. However, perhaps having a more honest debate that includes proper consideration of usage might lead to a better service in addition to exchanging some of the debate’s political heat for cooler analytical considerations. For example, in closing a number of the centres with very low usage, a proportion of the savings could be reinvested into the remaining centres to ensure that they are as good as they can be – becoming more attractive and useful to their communities.
It has always been difficult to engage the electorate on dull topics such as metrics but I feel that at a time when ignoring these will have such a dramatic and real impact on the lives of vulnerable people, we all have a responsibility to try to ensure they are not overlooked.