We knew there wasn’t going to be much good news for local government in today’s Spending Review, and sadly, this has proved to be true.
According to the Chancellor, the Secretary of State is “a model of lean government” who “has set an example to all his colleagues in reducing the size of his department by 60 per cent and abolishing twelve Quangos.” As a result, the Communities budget is feeling the effect of ring fencing health, education and international aid with a further 10% budget cut a two-year extension on the current commitment to freeze council tax.
The Chancellor justifies these further cuts to local government by highlighting the recent increase in public satisfaction with local services (as well as the fact that no council has “failed”), and attributes this to devolving decision-making to residents. While these factors may be true, they by no means discount the difficult choices that Councils are making every day as they have to scrimp and save to balance their books.
Today’s CSR reinforces that this new level of spending reduction cannot solely be met by buying stationary cheaper, increasing charges and providing more services online. While these things may help, ultimately a step change is required. Local expenditure will only be reduced to the level required if people do more for themselves, and the council does a lot less. Easier said than done; shifting to “enabling” rather than “providing” takes time and the skills and capacity of a local community cannot be built up overnight. What’s more local government doesn’t have the luxury of time to manage the transition in that way.
With a continually decreasing income and rising resident need, local authorities need demonstrate that, as hard as it might be, they have the ability to step up to the challenge. As Philippa Roe, leader of Westminster City Council said this week, “it’s now down to us as local authorities to behave differently when it comes to delivering services, and that covers everything from social finance schemes to early intervention on troubled families. Freeing up restrictions and allowing councils to borrow against their assets is key.” Local government needs creativity and courage in spades – how feasible that is when politicians’ eyes remain fast fixed on the next election, remains to be seen…