Local government cuts: council leaders must put place first

3 Sep 15

Local authorities and the voluntary and community sector serve the same communities and individuals. As further government cuts are likely in the Spending Review, it is in their mutual interest to find common ground whilst respecting differences

In one of its strongest interventions yet ahead of a Spending Review, the Local Government Association has warned of a £10bn hole in local government funding and significant threats to public services unless the government recognises the needs and financial plight of the sector.

I do not regard the LGA submission to the Treasury as alarmist. Indeed, it could be argued that after five years of increasingly severe cuts, the association is understating the dangers.

Local government took a disproportionate hit at the outset from the previous coalition government’s Spending Review, and the signs are that the current government will simply compound the problem. And it will do so at the same time as it is placing additional financial burdens onto local authorities, and when authorities are faced with both demographic and other pressures created by government policies such as “welfare reform”.

Ironically, at the very time when government ministers are promoting greater devolution to local government and to sub-regional combined authorities, they seem determined to undermine local authorities’ ability to deliver core services.

I support local authority leaders who are seeking to take advantage of the devolution and decentralisation policy. I also support their willingness to take on additional responsibilities, though I would urge caution if these are not being fully funded. Council leaders and their elected colleagues should be as concerned for the future of their core services (such as adult care, children’s services, environmental services, housing and leisure) as they are keen to take over economic powers, the Work Programme and even commissioning of NHS services.  

People in their communities still require these core services and in most places, demand for them is growing and will continue to do so.

Local government has to say loud and clearly to the government, just as the LGA is doing, that the public services elastic is going to snap unless government is willing to fund localism – both the core and the new.

Of course, different local authorities will face different challenges and will approach these in different ways. However, very few are in the luxurious position of having to make no significant cuts and undertaking no wholesale withdrawal of services. The vast majority face a very different prospect.  

My advice to local authority leaders is to always make sure that the public and service user understands why you are being forced to make cuts. There is no political or democratic gain to be had from hiding the cause and impact of central grant cuts. In any case, it should be possible to stimulate a response to the causes of the cuts from civil society organisations, local businesses (which rely on good public services), trade unions and the public themselves.

From my observations, local authorities have all too readily been tempted to make what they have commonly believed to be ‘easy’ cuts to grants and support to the voluntary and community sector, and in particular to local support, development and representative (often known as infrastructure) bodies. This has been and still is seriously short sighted, and has commonly served only to weaken the capacity of the voluntary and community sector at a time when its interventions are needed more than ever.

Of course, representative bodies of the local voluntary and community sector may or may not wish to respond positively to calls to work closely with local government and others to address the challenges of government cuts, especially if they feel that their local authority has unreasonably cut its sector funding and in particular, funding for infrastructure bodies. However, where this is not the case, I would suggest that if these infrastructure bodies do still decide to stand aside as the cuts and other policies adversely impact on local communities, then they will let their members, beneficiaries and local communities down massively. Deciding when and on what terms to engage is never easy but this is not a reason to not engage and seek to represent members.

Partnership between the voluntary and community sector and local government requires the two parties to want to collaborate.

For its part, local government has the opportunity to adopt a positive relationship with the voluntary and community sector by:

• involving the local voluntary and community sector in strategic deliberations, including sharing sensitive information and ideas on the basis of mutual trust; and even welcoming seconded voluntary and community sector staff on to local authority project teams

• saluting the voluntary and community sector’s voice for communities

• establishing user, voluntary sector and professional working groups to consider options for specific services with a remit to be as challenging to orthodoxy as they wish

• involving the voluntary and community sector in strategic commissioning and, where appropriate (and subject to avoidance of any conflicts of interest), in procurement and in scrutiny

• adopting commissioning and procurement approaches that work for and do not exclude the voluntary and community sector; and which encourage it to innovate not replicate existing council services and not about substituting volunteering for public service employment

• using grants and not simply relying contracts

• not discriminating against the voluntary and community sector when making budget cuts – but, rather, placing the emphasis on social outcomes

• taking the Social Value Act seriously

• respecting the right of the voluntary and community sector to challenge and campaign, whilst being involved in strategy development and contracting

• setting up joint task groups to explore how relationships with the voluntary and community sector can be strengthened; to ensure better mutual understanding and building the sector’s appetite and readiness to take on more services; and to agree how to develop the sector’s capacity

• investing in the development and building of the voluntary and community sector’s capacity to contribute to these initiatives

Local authorities and the voluntary and community sector in their locality serve the same communities and individuals. It is in their mutual interest to find common ground whilst respecting differences. They should campaign together for fairer central government financial treatment of councils. They should also recognise that the social and physical capital of any ‘place’ is far more than just the public sector, and that this combination of resource should be at the service of local people.

At the national level, this also requires the LGA to work much more closely with the national voluntary and community sector representative bodies.

And as for those national voluntary and community sector representative bodies, quite frankly, they need to raise their game.

The next few years are going to be very challenging for those committed to communities and social justice. Local government and the voluntary and community sector can find common cause, and prove by their behaviours their value and worth to the community and local places.

  • John Tizard

    John Tizard is an independent strategic adviser and commentator on public policy and public services. He works with a range of public, private, third, union and academic organisations. He now holds several non-executive, trustee and chair roles in the VCS and arts sectors. He was a senior executive both at Capita and Scope, and is a former joint council leader

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