Sharing services between councils was a bit of niche interest that only got Poindexters like me animated until recently. Not now. The issue is turning into a bit of a hot potato. On the one hand, there’s the group of Conservative-run London councils who are promising to merge all their functions. They’ve estimated that this could save in the region of £100 million. On the other hand, the trade unions are lining up to defend traditional council services in anticipation of a jobs blood-bath.
It’s possible to argue that this is a lot of fuss about nothing. Westminster Council’s annual budget stands at around £1 billion per year. The other council budgets in question are of a similar size. Savings of £100 million don’t sound out of place with the scale of cutbacks anticipated across the public sector.
It’s not, however, about the scale of the savings. People are worried about how these savings are being made. Some of these objections, such as those from “vested interests” like the trade unions, can be relatively easily dismissed by the government. But councils are also running up against objections from ordinary voters who like traditional models of service delivery. People have a real affinity for services run by their local council in the time-honoured way.
In Nottinghamshire, for instance, there’s a public row over the council’s decision to sell off a care home to the private sector. Campaigners have collected a 2,500-signature petition to protest the plans. The council is currently considering handing over other services to the private sector in order to save £120m.
There’s also no escaping the fact, however, that traditional approaches to service delivery are increasingly unaffordable. New polling from the LGiU indicates that decisions to share services are driven as much by necessity as ideology. Our polling shows that an overwhelming 95% of council leaders of all stripes are planning to share services in order to cut costs. Nearly half are convinced that this kind of reform will allow them to maintain service levels.
How, then, can councils square this circle between the need for efficiency savings and demand for inefficient traditional services? David Cameron’s Big Society, with volunteers running local services, is starting to look like an essential tool for councils in their battle to maintain some services, and not an ideological luxury.
It’s clear to see where the Big Society could work. If the revolution comes, non-core but much-loved services like libraries will be in the vanguard. Ed Vaizey has already argued that libraries have a “home at the heart of the ‘big society’” with over 100 local groups trying to get more involved in the delivery of library services. 100 libraries is not to be sniffed at. It shows at least some demand to take over services.
Big questions, however, still remain about the Big Society. It’s easy to imagine a queue of sharp-elbowed booklovers stepping into the breach to ensure that they can continue to get their hands on the latest Henning Mankell. But it’s less clear to see how the Big Society could apply to difficult and little understood areas of a council’s work, such as child protection.
Many councils, particularly in poorer areas, are also concerned about the capacity of the voluntary sector and individuals in some deprived communities to deliver services. In these areas, councils will need to invest in developing capacity (as the government has recognised with its well-funded pilot in Liverpool). It’s unlikely, however, that councils will be able to come up with the cash given the enormous strain on their resources.
It’s not inevitable, but the end result of all this could be that some more advantaged communities get the traditional services that they “deserve” by dint of their volunteering. Other communities, however, will be required to make-do with a mass-market alternative or nothing at all.