It’s that time of year. Those of us of a certain age will remember the anticipation and then the excitement of learning which tracks had made it to the top of John Peel’s ‘Festive Fifty’. Newspapers, magazines and TV channels will be full of the ‘top 10 Christmas gifts for that troublesome aunt’ or the ‘twenty ways to avoid a hangover’ (although ‘stay at home and don’t drink’ never seems to feature). Well, this year, there is a new take on these lists. Frustrated editors and programme commissioners, running out of new ideas for what to have a Top 50 of, have been thrown a lifeline by none other than DCLG.
According to press reports (£) this week we can look forward to a new handbook from the Department entitled ‘50 ways to save’ – practical tips and guidance for helping local authorities to make deeper cuts in running costs. When you hear that these include, apparently, banning mineral water at meetings and closing canteens, you do (or at least I do) start to wonder whether cuts in central government have gone deep enough if resources are still available to produce this sort of stuff.
The newspapers will always pick on the things that create good stories, and when we see the handbook there may well be some very useful advice in there. However, if that advice is hidden amongst suggestions that are, at best, patronising, then the message will be lost and the handbook, rather ironically, will turn out to be a waste of money.
There is though, for me, a really important point here, and one which has bugged me ever since the current Secretary of State started his very public tirade against what he views as local authority waste and the press started their campaigns of FOI requests on what they view as ‘lavish’ Council spending. We want and expect our local authorities to provide high quality services. To do that they need to recruit and retain high quality staff and members, who need to have the tools to do their jobs to the very best of their abilities. Good decision-making and exceptional performance is a function not only of the quality of the people, but of their physical and mental well-being – are they refreshed, alert, motivated and so on. For example, it might save money not to provide members with decent food and drink for an evening Council meeting, but if many of them have come from a day at work and have their minds on getting home for a meal, will the quality of debate really be as good as it could and should be?
There has to be a de minimis level below which cuts in these type of costs have a far greater negative impact, both financially and qualitatively, on local authority services than the positive impact of releasing more funds for the provision of those services. From the authorities that I see and speak to, I think many are already well past that point.
I look forward to reading the handbook and really do hope that my fears are misplaced. If it turns out to be a complete turkey, however, then at least DCLG will have released it at absolutely the right time.