If you take a pair of shears to local government funding, you might expect to see a commensurate decrease in the scale or scope of local government services, or some compensating tax increases. In the event, neither of these things has happened to the degree that might reasonably have been expected.
Indeed, as remarked by the Minister for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles MP, in his local government finance settlement oral statement: “Local government has shown great skill in reducing its budgets. Committed local authorities have protected front line services. Little wonder then that at a time of retrenchment satisfaction in council services has gone up.”
The apparent weak correlation between funding levels and service delivery has strengthened central government belief that there is more scope to cut waste, as evidenced by the somewhat patronising 50 ways to save – Examples of sensible savings in local government issued by DCLG in December. The exhortation not to use mineral water at meetings generated a good deal of hollow laughter in local government circles, but it illustrates the view clearly held by those in central government that councils are still not taking austerity seriously.
At the same time, examples are given in the document of local authorities that have been innovating and generating new efficiencies. To quote the LGA response to the 2013/14 settlement: “It is generally recognised that councils have managed the cuts so far by maximising efficiencies and redesigning services.” Indeed, Councils have in fact risen to the challenge in a magnificent way, generating millions and millions of Pounds in efficiency savings by coming up with new ideas and implementing them very efficiently with a minimum of fuss. In my own council we have saved by sharing services with neighbours, investing to save in ICT, increasing the occupancy of council buildings through introducing new ways of working, improving processes and procedures, cutting out waste… I could go on. The list is (transparently) available on the council website.
It is interesting to contrast councils’ performance in this respect with that of central government, which has been poor. According to Tony Travers, the director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, most central government departments have yet to deliver the savings they have promised, and the latest indications are that the trend in central government departmental expenditure remains upward. More hollow laughter.
It appears that local government is its own worst enemy, in that the reward for good performance is more cuts. In its document Funding outlook for councils from 2010/11 to 2019/20:Preliminary modelling the LGA warned the government that “If the same pattern of cuts to the public spending is replicated in the next Spending Review, councils will not be able to deliver the existing service offer by the end of this decade”. The warning has fallen on deaf ears. Local government may have been exempted from the 1% additional cut in 2013/14, but is back on the list in 2014/15 to take a share of an extra 2%. We do not yet know what the Spending Review holds for local government, but would anyone bet on local government taking a smaller share than other areas of spending like health and education?
Meanwhile, the government continues with its front-foot rhetoric, aimed, it would appear, at Daily Mail readers. Councils are wasteful. Councils must be restrained from irresponsibly putting up council tax. Council managers are paid too much money. Councils are not transparent. Once again, local government is its own worst enemy when it comes to responding to such accusations, however baseless they may be. Conflicted by its own politics, confounded by the complexity of the funding system and its own arguments (even DCLG found it necessary to issue a Plain English Guide to the Settlement), local government’s pronouncements on the subject of funding sound like little more than whingeing. It is time for local government to try to win the media battle and drop its fastidiousness about Daily Mail politics. When will the LGA take off the gloves?