By Eric Pickles MP.
Over the next few weeks, councils will be putting their final touches to the budgets for the next couple of years. The decisions they are having to make are not easy. I am full of admiration for all those councils – the vast majority of councils in England – who are focused on one goal: how best to protect the front line services that the public rely on, despite the tougher financial climate? The answers that they are coming up with are testament to the ambition, leadership and imagination which represents the best of local government in England today.
But unfortunately at the moment, some councils are getting all the attention for all the wrong reasons – those councils which are taking the ‘slash and burn’ approach. We need to shine the spotlight much more on those councils who really are doing a fantastic job, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
Take Trafford, for example. They already have the reputation for being one of the most effective and efficient councils in the country – and have proved that once again with their draft budget. Thanks to careful planning over the past few years, they are actually able to put more into the services that residents want next year – including more money for vulnerable children, the elderly and volunteering. But instead of sitting back, they think they can improve even further – saving £4.5 million through smarter procurement, £2.3 million through streamlining the management and back office, and cutting their carbon footprint by 30%.
Leighton Buzzard has also saved money through good housekeeping over the past few years – money which will now be spent improving services for young people, refurbishing a play area and a one-off grant to the local Citizen’s Advice bureau. Then you’ve got West Norfolk. In moves which will only help local businesses, they are freezing parking charges for the third year running, and also freezing charges for market stalls. They have pledged to work closely with the local business community to promote growth and attract investment. They also want to involve local community groups much more closely in running leisure, entertainment and heritage services.
And everywhere you look, there are councils who are listening to what residents want and concentrating on the services which affect each of us, every day. Richmond setting aside £500,000 to repair potholes and broken pavements. Dartford and Sevenoaks working together to protect the weekly bin services. You’ve got more and more councils putting their spending online – embracing the new era of transparency, accountability, and responsiveness. More and more councils biting the bullet on senior pay. More and more councils coming together to share services. And I’m determined to do everything possible to support them, in every way possible: by devolving power and by offering every council enough money to fund a council tax freeze next year.
It just goes to show that cutting front line jobs and hitting front line services isn’t inevitable– it doesn’t have to be an option at all. These outstanding councils prove it. And there’s no reason at all why this sort of transformation shouldn’t become the standard.