The coalition, rather than councils, is getting the blame for local government cuts. What does this tell us about the mood music amongst voters?
Local councils continue to battle on a number of fronts, including dealing with a tough financial settlement and continued pressure to support increasing numbers of vulnerable citizens.
Indeed, the Institute of Fiscal Studies this week published analysis showing that employment across local government is likely to fall further because of cuts; even fewer people to do more with less.
Against this backdrop, what is the state of public opinion? Ipsos MORI’s latest local government poll, commissioned by the localism think-tank NLGN and released at their annual conference, shows most voters may not have yet noticed cuts to local services such as social care and refuse collection.
Around two in three (65%) agree with the statement 'I haven’t really noticed any changes to the services provided by my local council', although one in three (34%) disagrees with this.
However, whilst they may not have felt the impact personally, almost half nevertheless agree, 'the cuts to local council services have gone too far and will lead to social unrest'.
Austerity is starting to bite, and the public seems to be tuning into the mood music. Voters are anxious about the future. A majority (55%) say they are concerned about the impact of council service cuts to come on them and their families over the coming year.
People traditionally more likely to be dependent on the state for support are even more concerned about what the future holds.
These anxieties present huge challenges for local authorities as they seek to grapple with reduced budgets. Whilst voters are concerned about the implications of the cuts, a majority (64%) remain reluctant to see their council tax increase, even if this is at the expense of current service levels.
Indeed councils are under pressure from Whitehall to freeze council tax for another year. At the same time, a majority (57%) are unwilling personally to accept less from their council.
These apparently conflicting and contradictory viewpoints aren’t unusual in polls such as this, but they serve to highlight the conundrum local government faces in trying to do the right thing by their local communities.
Yet, despite the challenges, local government should take some comfort from this new research. Looking ahead, voters overwhelmingly say that they trust their local council rather than the government to make the important decisions about how services are provided in their local area (79% compared to 11%). Perhaps localism is alive and well after all.
Should, then, councils be left alone to get on with the tough decision-making? Only last week, Jonathan Carr West (director of the Local Government Information Unit) wrote in Public Finance about the 'breathtaking cheekiness' of secretary of state for local government and communities, Eric Pickles, in describing local authorities as 'democracy dodgers' in raising council tax levels by just under the 2% referendum threshold.Certainly, these tough choices benefit from dialogue with citizens and communities.
Ipsos MORI’s experience is that there are councils out there who genuinely want to engage local communities in a democratic debate about spending and service prioritisation, however challenging the conversation may be.
As an example, for a number of years now Ipsos MORI has been working with Kent County Council (amongst others) to consult its residents through workshops about how services should be delivered and budgets prioritised. Whilst small scale and deliberative in nature, these events provide invaluable depth and insight into residents’ views and are an important tool for elected members when it comes to annual budget setting.
Finally, it is worth reflecting that as things stand, it is central, not local, government which is taking the brunt of the blame for cuts in local services. Just over one in ten voters blame councils for cuts to local services. Meanwhile, three in ten hold the Coalition responsible, and a slightly lower proportion believe the previous Labour government is to blame.
Whether this balance of blame shifts further towards councils once new policy changes hit (including the business rate relocalisation and cutting of council tax benefit) remains to be seen, and will be something to watch closely with county council elections due in May.
For the time being at least, it seems the public is not holding local government responsible; perhaps a small piece of good news for an embattled sector?
Victoria Harkness is research director at Ipsos MORI