The years of salami slicing are over, thank goodness. No longer can councils simply knock off a few quid from all their services every year, now they need to face up to whether some of those services should even be provided in the first place. That is why the spending reductions represent a real opportunity for local government to take stock and really focus on what services they provide and why.
The job of a local council is a pretty simple one – to provide the residents it serves with the services they want. No more, no less. And the services those residents want are pretty simple to work out. Any election candidate will know – people want roads maintained, good schools, clean streets, regular rubbish collections, libraries. Not one resident will tell you in an election campaign, or at any other time, that they want to see Five A Day Coordinators, Cycling Officers, Diversity Managers and all the other jobs that have been created in the last 10 years in local government, and across a range of bodies funded by the public.
Yes, cutting 25% of a council’s budget is a massive challenge and will lead to some very difficult decisions. Just getting rid of the five a day-ers is nowhere near enough and we should not kid ourselves otherwise. But, if the council steps back and looks at their entire operation properly they will quickly realise which are the services that have grown because the council felt like doing them, and which are the services that their residents want to see delivered day in day out.
One of the key points of this opportunity is that as well as generating the savings, some of the money that is freed up can be ploughed back into those key services which have suffered over the last few years in order to fund large back office departments that could be shared across councils, or meaningless five a day agendas. Those who grasp this opportunity with both hands will reap the benefits, as more importantly will residents who will see the improvements to their neighbourhoods once the council has stopped all the peripheral work that no resident has ever wanted their council to do.
The councils that hide under the covers, hoping this all goes away or just focus on reducing spending by the amount set by the Government across all its work will be the losers , as will their residents who will have worse core services for more money. And remember, there is an additional safeguard to ensure this happens – the Government’s announcement that council tax should be frozen next year. Councillors and council officers who were planning to cover some of the reductions by large increases in council tax cannot do so now, without facing the wrath of their residents, who will all be expecting to see no increase. That announcement could be one of the most significant of the entire Coalition’s term of office for local government.
The opportunity is here to really refocus local government on what it is supposed to do, delivering good frontline services for all their residents.