At the Conservative Party Conference, we held a session looking at practical ways councils can reduce spending and cut Council Tax. This took place in the Freedom Zone, which was open for all to visit. Some great ideas were discussed, such as sharing services and never accepting the first offer on contract negotiations.
Carl Thomson, a Councillor from Woking, discusses his experiences of delivering value for taxpayers' money below.
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Carl Thomson is the Conservative Councillor for Mount Hermon East on Woking Borough Council, where he has been a member of the executive and is chairman of the licensing committee.
Residents in Woking believe the Council is delivering real improvements through redevelopment of a tired and dated town centre, provision of modern leisure facilities and new affordable housing. But they also know that we are achieving this by sticking to simple principles like cutting costs, getting rid of unnecessary bureaucracy, keeping Council Tax low and working with private sector partners to give people more efficient services and better value for money.
The financial situation has not been good for councils in the past few years. With the further 10% reduction in local government funding announced during the recent Spending Round, Woking will have seen its central grant cut by 40% over this parliament, and it is unlikely to stop there.
However, prudent local authorities will have seen far in advance that economic conditions were likely to be challenging for some time, and will have thought seriously about how to get more for less long before the Coalition’s first spending review in 2010. As far back as 2007, Woking introduced an ambitious target for a reduction in the number of council employees. As a result the Council has seen the number of Full Time Equivalent staff members fall from 510 in 2006-07 to 350 in 2012-13.
This reduction of the Council’s workforce by one third was achieved through a freeze in recruitment, combined with reducing numbers through natural wastage, terminating temporary and contract staff, considering different work patterns and practices, merging positions and redeploying staff with retraining if necessary.
One of the biggest drivers of efficiency in Woking has been the willingness of the Council to embrace outsourcing and private sector provision where this can be shown to improve services and achieve savings for taxpayers. The Council has outsourced management of a significant proportion of its services, such as environmental maintenance, leisure and housing management. In 2011 the Council transferred the management of its sports and leisure facilities for a period of ten years, sharing the cost of improved services for residents. On housing, we have outsourced income, tenancy and estate management, lettings, asset management, inspections and investment works.
We have also been looking at other ways of getting the best out of the Council’s estate – vacant desk space in offices has been taken up by the neighbourhood police and community groups, giving the police a more visible presence in the town centre, reducing the need for larger grant payments to help meet the accommodation needs of voluntary organisations, and allowing the Council to gain an income from an otherwise unused resource.
It would have been difficult to ask council officers to make sacrifices if councillors were unwilling to do the same – so the executive abolished taxpayer-funded food and refreshments laid on for councillors before meetings, and the Council has rejected proposals for special responsibility allowances to be paid to committee chairmen and portfolio holders. We have also sought to reduce the cost of democracy in the borough. Prompted by the forthcoming review of local government boundaries, last month the Council voted to reduce the number of councillors by 18% from 2016, a move that will save the taxpayer more than £60,000 a year in expenses and allowances.
Those councils which protest about cuts leading to reductions in grants and frontline services need to reflect on the fact that such payments represent only a small proportion of the money local government spends. The biggest amount is on staffing and administrative overheads. Thanks to the approach we have taken, Woking Borough Council has been able to freeze Council Tax in three of the last five years – starting, incidentally, before the Coalition introduced a centrally-funded grant for local authorities which kept rises below 2%. Where the tax has been increased, we have kept this below the rate of inflation, and we have done all this with no reduction to services, and no reductions in grants or funding to voluntary organisations.
There are several lessons Woking has learnt in our efforts to become leaner and more efficient. The first is the need to establish political leadership and priorities early on. Our business plan made clear that we expected to see any increase in Council Tax kept below the CPI rate of inflation; that we wanted to see improved cost efficiency in all the services the Council provides; and that we wanted to restore the Council’s reserves to a position of financial health. By providing these objectives, we gave officers guidance and direction in their work as well as making clear what was expected at the end of the financial year.
The second lesson – and one which might sit uncomfortably with some readers – is that cultural change in large organisations can only happen when there is buy-in and support from those affected. Council officers aren’t the enemy. There is genuine talent and business expertise at all levels of local government. Council bureaucracy can rise to the challenge admirably when it is given purpose and direction, but do not underestimate the time and effort that needs to be put into making the case for change.
Woking is far from perfect – we are in the process of deleveraging our high borrowing against income-generating assets, and the symbolic but important cut in Council Tax has thus far eluded us; but I am confident that we have responded impressively to the new financial climate and the growing desire of our residents to provide services in the most cost-effective way possible, to become more self-reliant and less dependent on central government, and to promote the economic vitality of the borough.