Over the past week commentators have been analysing how the Spending Review will impact upon public services. The Department for Communities and Local Government was hit harder than most. It is facing an overall reduction in its budget of 51 percent in real terms by 2014-15. Some commentators have stirred up fear that this will result in some sort of decimation of frontline services. The LGA claim “these front loaded cuts will be very difficult for millions of people who use the services councils provide; from keeping children safe to ensuring that streets are clean. They will lead to cuts at the front line.” This needn’t be the case.
The department has guaranteed to provide funds that enables a council tax freeze for 2011-12. Council taxpayers who have had to put up with council tax nearly doubling over the last decade will welcome a freeze with their budgets tighter. Of course, it is possible to do better – some local authorities have managed significant cuts in recent years through tackling high spending properly, and it’s not ideal that this fund is needed at all. But it is good news that central government will work with councils that want to make the cuts needed to freeze council tax. The responsibility is now with councils to increase efficiencies and cut waste within their vast bureaucracies.
Councils have a responsibility to provide its residents with vital services. Emptying bins, cleaning streets, maintaining public spaces; these are the things that the public expects of their council. Yet our recent report highlighted 4 specific jobs found in most councils nationwide which are unnecessary. If efficiencies are needed then councils have to ask themselves if these jobs are affordable. Can the member of staff be re-deployed elsewhere? What can we do to ensure that we meet burdensome central targets but don’t create a layer of bureaucracy that exceeds Whitehall requirements? Councils should be targeting their staff’s efforts at their key priorities.
Senior staff could also set an example by cutting their own pay. Our town hall rich lists have highlighted just how well remunerated some executives are.
Eric Pickles believes that the CSR provides councils with a choice: they can either resort to reckless cuts in services; or they can “create a more flexible and innovative council.” While Councils are receiving cuts in their budgets they are also receiving increased freedom and a greater say in how they spend their money. The CSR removed ring-fencing around all council grants except simplified school grants and a public health grant, with the number of separate core grants reduced from over 90 to less than 10. They have a chance to use their local knowledge and expertise to make sure every penny is properly prioritised.
Councils can also open up the books to help drive efficiency. All councils will have to publish spending over £500 by January anyway but there’s nothing stopping councils taking the initiative and doing it themselves. There’s a list of which councils have done that here and if your council isn’t on the list ask them why here.There are other schemes to get people involved, such as Redbridge’s interactive savings service.
Good councils with talented staff and committed politicians can come out of this period with more efficient services, targeted at the people who need them the most. That’s the real challenge for the next five years.