BBC One's The Street That Cut Everything taught us nothing

Last night the BBC aired The Street That Cut Everything, a reality television show. Nick Robinson opened the show proclaiming: “Welcome to an extraordinary experiment. The people living here are going to have to do a whole lot more for themselves and get used to having have a lot less done for them. Asking the people on this street to do without something we all take for granted – council services. Everything the council provides is going. “

The crux of the experiment was seeing how an ordinary street manages when all council services are removed. They are all given their pro-rata council tax contribution and are given freedom how to spend it. The 52 Residents had to decide if they were to work together or as individual households.

Residents of ‘The street’ were put through a series of challenges, from losing street lighting, removal of their wheelie bins and waste collections, fly tipping, graffiti, housing benefit, closure of parks, leisure centres and loss of council buses

The residents took recycling to the local supermarket. Only to find it returned to them because the supermarket bins are also emptied by the council. They eventually took their waste to a private recycling plant and were paid £15 for it.

Whilst the theatrical show made for sensationalist television the concept was completely flawed.  It bore little relation to the actual challenge people would face without council services for three reasons.

First, it compared large-scale long-term council provision and planning with an attempt to manage without on a small-scale, for only 6 weeks. Many of the services residents used on a regular basis are administered by a council with an established infrastructure. If the council ceased to exist then a private organisation would inevitably move to fill the void. Anton Howes on the Adam Smith Institute’s blog makes this point:

If private money could have been used to replace services, any entrepreneur in the area would have jumped at the chance to make a profit providing lighting, or collecting rubbish. But then six weeks for just a handful of households is not enough to merit that kind of endeavour. Instead of rationing public services within strict limits, a whole service industry involving growth and increasing productivity could have been created, particularly if done on a larger, longer-term scale.”

The second reason is it focussed on the frontline services residents receive. What it failed to highlight was other vast examples of waste that councils could cut tomorrow and save millions of pounds.

One resident hit the nail on the head. “No wonder the council is short of money, there seems to be a service for everything. If they cut a few of the services, I think people would manage and survive off their own devices. One daft rule of the experiment was that residents were not permitted to use any of their own money, even to buy a torch to light the streets when on the way to work, surely that is unrealistic and made it harder to deal with the withdrawal of services.

Finally, it is unclear where the figure of £52.90 the residents receive comes from. The money residents pay in council tax only makes up a proportion of local government revenue. Preston City Council have three sources of funding: £7.34 million in Central Government Grants; £10.17 million from council taxpayers and £12.92 million from non-domestic rate payers, it is not clear if the share residents received back takes this into account. Furthermore, does the figure include both the money paid to Preston City and Lancashire County councils?

One of the most controversial moments during the six weeks was when residents were told that out of their budget they had to pay for the care of the father of one of “the street’s” residents. Following a majority vote, they voted to provide the care. It would have been contentious not to, and following the emotional plea by his daughter, heartless. But it would be logical for the street’s residents to also receive the father’s share of council tax, it they were expected to pay for his care. This was wholly unfair and ate up a not insignificant £300 of their already diminishing budget.

But even leaving aside the flaws in the application of the programme’s concept.  The concept itself bore little relation to the actual challenge for councils.  They don’t need to respond to cuts by dropping services, let alone all of them, but should instead be looking to emulate other authorities that have shown it is possible to get better value.

Thankfully the programme did not consist entirely of residents cheerleading services provided by their council. The tight financial circumstances did prompt some residents to search for examples of waste within their authority. One resident discovered Lancashire County Council spent £29,000 to change their logo. His response “£29,000?  That’d pay for a lot of care!”. Perhaps the most useful outcome of the programme was that it provoked some residents to start realising there were areas of spending the council poured hundreds of thousands of pounds into with no direct benefit to residents. When councils threaten to remove provision of elderly care and closure of public parks and school buses, residents will realise the council needs to sort out their priorities. When challenged the residents seemed to take more of an interest in where the council spend their money.

Following an event we ran at Conservative Party Conference, the BBC published an article about some of the ways councils can save money, with cost cutting tips from the successful council leaders we invited. It is a shame measures like those weren’t given more publicity in last night’s documentary. The programme was more of a propaganda campaign against council cuts, when it could have asked more serious questions and investigated, for example, why Wandsworth Council is able to spend the best part of a third less than neighbouring Lambeth Council and generally get better marks for its services.  A lot of that is down to running a lot more efficiently.

Interestingly when residents realised their pot was empty, they prioritised. They chose to take down their hired street lights in order to claw money back to enable them to have their waste collected. Councils need to prioritise now but that shouldn’t mean giving taxpayers a worse deal.   They should be making cuts in non-essential areas, reducing the bloated back office, slashing  fat-cat salaries and slimming down the enormous mass of middle managers.  How many of those residents would’ve rather seen a diversity officer in post over having their waste collected? How many would care if they existed at all if it meant a reduction in council tax?

An experiment like this will naturally have huge limitations, but these limitations are not an excuse for ignoring saving suggestions or for failing to acknowledge and remind audiences that only a proportion of council expenditure is on frontline services.

I struggle to see quite what the aim of the programme was supposed to be.  An experiment, and one set up unfairly, in how people would cope with short-term revolutionary anarcho-capitalism isn’t the right way of exploring how best councils can manage budget cuts.   There is only one really clear result: the people on the programme really valued being able to see what was happening to their money.  If all councils were transparent about their spending residents could come to a much more informed view about how to prioritise with their money.

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