PricewaterhouseCoopers has produced its annual survey of the opinions of council leaders, chief executives and (more importantly) residents about council finances and services.

Generally the report makes for encouraging reading. Of course those from the “sector” complained about how impossible it would be to cope with less money. Dogs bark, cats miaow, council chief executives cry wolf.

It is true that there have been spending cuts, big cuts, and that more are coming. However it is also the case that budgets remain hugely bloated. To reconcile these statements simply consider the context of the last Labour Government’s huge, and irresponsible, spending increases.

Local government spending in 2013/14 was £117 billion. In 2004/05 it was £92 billion.  After inflation that works out around the same.

The IFS have offered some figures on the astonishing amount of money Gordon Brown used to throw at local government. Their figures use a narrower measure – not including the money passed on to schools. It went up from £45 in 2001 to £63 billion in 2009 – both at 2011 prices: that is, in real terms.

Does anyone remember thinking what a lean, mean machine local government was in 2004? Er, no. It was extravagant then and became even more extravagant. We have rolled back to the (still massive) levels of extravagance seen in 2004.

Anyway the PwC survey confirms that further spending cuts over the past year have generally passed unnoticed by residents.

“As with our 2013 survey, almost half of the public we surveyed were unaware of any reductions in local council services in their area.”

Indeed in several areas those who had noticed any reduction in service had fallen. For instance the repair of roads and pavements, library reductions or closures:

“Both of these figures have fallen slightly compared to 2013, perhaps reflecting that the initial outcry about council service closures is waning, just at the time when councils are facing their most significant financial challenges yet.”

Many chief executives and council leaders accepted that need for “focusing on achieving impact through influence, alliance and collaboration, rather than through the direct delivery of services.”

The report said:

We asked Leaders and Chief Executives the extent to which they agree that local authorities should focus on enabling outcomes rather than delivering services, and our survey found that a majority – 6 out of 10 – respondents agree. A number of councils we’re working with are already embracing an outcomes based approach, and opening up very different ways of thinking and operating as a result.

There was also some recognition that changes could mean a better service as well as a reduced cost:

Our survey shows that a growing proportion of local authority Leaders and Chief Executives recognise that joining up care will have a positive impact on outcomes – rising from 73% in 2013 to 85% in 2014.

Inevitably PwC use the most ghastly management jargon. For instance it reflects on:

The need for facilitated discussion with strategic health and social care leaders.

I suppose that means finding an NHS high-up willing to take the call when a council leader is offering to cut a deal on shared services.

In a way it is difficult to imagine that so many chief executives – with their six figure salaries – have not worked out that collaboration on delivering services is a good idea. But this report is still another encouraging sign that, for all the bluster, councils are adjusting in a sensible way to reduced budgets.

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