Is apathy, not cuts, the big issue for local government?

Do the public care about cuts to local government and other public services? If not, why not? And if they don’t, what are local government leaders going to say and do about it?

This month has seen both the Autumn Statement and, more recently, initial details of the financial settlement for local government. Once again, the trend of severe cuts has continued, and will do so irrespective of who wins next year’s General Election.

Analysis from august institutions including the Office for Budget Responsibility and Institute for Fiscal Studies has given us some grim portents. One million public sector jobs are likely to go by 2020, when we will also see the lowest spending on public services in 80 years.

And if we think it’s been bad so far, the worst is yet to come. Since 2010 there have been cuts of £35 billion, but there are still £55 billion to go.

And the Local Government Association says that the core grant to local government has reduced by 40 per cent since 2010.

Whilst national politicians trade blows and the battle for votes begins in earnest, what does this mean for local government? What is the narrative, and is the message hitting home?

Not a week goes by without a council announcing that jobs will go, things will only get worse, and some services will no longer be provided. It’s the latter that interests me, along with the risk of crying wolf and the public perception of what is taking place.

I don’t for one moment want to see services drastically reduced, but anyone who’s worked in local government knows that something has to give. But what? Can anyone cite a service reduction or abolition anywhere that has really made residents stop and think that local government is never going to be the same again? Today’s headlines about street lights being dimmed are only the tip of the iceberg.

The irony is that as long as councils continue to manage budget reductions effectively without major service changes then most residents aren’t going to pay attention.  It is likely that unless roads deteriorate to a level of considerable danger, the streets are strewn with litter, and schools have no books, then the current prophecies of doom will fall on deaf ears.

So maybe it’s time for talk to be replaced by both talk and action. If councils want their residents to understand what is really happening, then they have to both take and implement difficult decisions.

They need to eyeball their residents and tell them what’s going to happen, and then make it happen. Too many politicians are prevaricating, constantly worrying about losing votes and delaying the inevitable. Indecision and inaction do not provide clarity. And there’s a risk that the longer the delay, the less control councils will have of how they manage service reductions.

My own informal and unscientific research over the past few years, with friends who mostly don’t work in local government, has shown little sympathy for or emotional connection to cuts to local government.

‘About time too’, ‘overstaffed and overpaid’, and ‘there’s so much waste that could be cut’, are just some of the sentiments expressed, so the message is clearly not getting through.

There is a risk that those working in local government overestimate public sympathy for their plight.  My own experience, both personally and professionally, is that the battle for hearts and mind has not been won.

However, the public do have an emotional connection with the NHS, and I’m not sure this is healthy. Protecting funding of the NHS at the expense of other public services doesn’t make practical sense to me, but political parties are falling over each other to do just that, and for one reason, votes.

It might not be popular to say it, but I don’t see why the NHS should be treated differently to local government. NHS colleagues need to develop a similar culture to council staff regarding financial prudence, and I don’t think this exists at the moment. The burden of reduced budgets needs to be shared. Robbing Peter to protect Paul just doesn’t make sense.

Social care is a perfect example. Demand is increasing as funding falls, and yet an effective social care system can ultimately reduce healthcare costs. Health and social care are inextricably linked, so how can you protect one and not the other? You wouldn’t strengthen two walls of a house and leave the other two to crumble.

The sacred cows have to be challenged, both nationally and locally, so that future pain is managed effectively and equitably.

If local government is going to get its message across, regrettably it now has to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Residents need to understand that it is not a case of if, but when, with when being now. And they need to be persuaded to give a damn.




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