Finance professionals need to start putting their heads above the parapet

22 Nov 18

Public sector accountants need to start shouting out about what is happening in their sector locally in such a way that their voices are heard nationally, argues the WLGA’s Debbie Wilcox. 



While we wait for the end of austerity to finally arrive – no time soon I assure you - the problem of balancing the books becomes ever more difficult in this decade of austerity and retrenchment. 

Since we’re fond of Charles Dickens in Wales at the minute, Mr Micawber’s recipe for happiness is starting to falter and the finance professional has become in effect “the abominable no man and woman”. 

Elected members have long been aware the technicalities and rigours of the section 151 role and now we’re having to swat up another two clauses of the Local Government Finance Act.

Until recently only those councillors prone to wearing anoraks would have heard of sections 114 and 115, which set out the basis for giving notice banning unlawful expenditure.

There used to be the punchline: ‘Have you heard the joke about the interesting accountant? No. Me neither’. In the current climate I think we are going to need to revise our thinking.  Accountants are becoming more interesting and their role, development and importance in public service decision-making needs to reflect this.

The impact of prolonged austerity is not just a matter of abstract accountancy.

What starts with moving a few department expenditure limits allocations around in the budgets on the UK and devolved governments, ends in the heart-breaking impact of peoples’ lives of fewer libraries, rationed domiciliary care, the cessation of vital bus services and the decimation of services for children and young people. Add to this the ongoing fiasco of welfare reform and you have a malign impact on our communities.

No wonder the Philip Alston the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights just issued a damning report on the UK, citing the ’great misery’ that austerity has inflicted on people. 

Austerity also frames Brexit, the great tragicomedy of our age. 

As Warwick University’s Thiemo Fetzer points out welfare cuts under the first phase of austerity in 2010-15 had a decisive impact on the UK’s decision to leave the EU. He argues that material economic changes encouraged grievances with the political system and that this led many to support populism and then Brexit.

‘When it comes to public services across the UK it is local government which by any objective measure is doing the heavy lifting.’

When it comes to public services across the UK it is local government which by any objective measure is doing the heavy lifting.  As Mia Gray from Cambridge University concluded recently, “we found the politics of austerity ‘dumped’ the fiscal crisis on the local state”.  The corollary to this is that local taxpayer is picking up the tab. 

So I support in every way the finance community’s efforts to change the way their own roles, competencies and training need to address the reduced futures faced by all our communities.  I support your desire for more influence around important decisions and more responsibility in shaping the future.  

However if you want more influence as finance professionals you must put your head above the parapet and translate what is happening locally into a more coherent national narrative.  

I am not asking the finance community to construct the barricades and lift the cobbles from the street. 

I fully understand professional ethos and discipline. Respecting the professional and political dichotomy is crucial.

CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman does a brilliant job in this respect but I think it is incumbent on the wider profession to provide louder background noise to add to a ‘robust and noisy public conversation’ about the current state and future of local public services and the people who rely on them.

Debbie Wilcox was a speaker at the CIPFA Wales annual conference today.  

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