In late 2009 John Denham, the then Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG), asked Sir Richard Leese and myself to co-chair a group tasked with developing proposals “to promote organisational and workforce efficiencies and a more strategic approach to procurement whilst maintaining high quality front-line services.”
Our report was intended to inform the way councils responded to the inevitable cuts in public spending which were coming after the 2010 General Election. We concluded that it was possible to make savings yet still offer a significant degree of protection to front line services.
We couldn’t have known then that Local Government would be singled out to bear a significantly higher proportion of cuts or that those cuts would be weighted to hit areas with the greatest need, hardest. But in the years that followed councils up and down the country did manage to make huge reductions in spending without destroying services.
There were noticeable cuts in services of course but these were within the range of provision about which local variation is to be expected. However the budget that we set in Lewisham recently took us close to the point where we will face the closure of services vital to the well-being of our community.
Councils make savings from the “General Fund” which covers Social Care as well as Youth Work, Libraries, Parks, Crime Reduction, Refuse Collection and Street Sweeping among other things (but excludes Schools and Housing). Last year in Lewisham this was £268m with Social Care accounting for almost half. Over the next three years we need to cut a further £85m on current projections.
Ministers don’t talk about the cuts they have forced on Social Care only about the protection they have offered the NHS. But the two are inextricably linked and cuts to Social Care go a long way to explaining why the NHS experienced a crisis this winter.
Social Care cannot be subject to pro-rata cuts so those other services will face disproportionate cuts. By 2018 Lewisham could have as little as £10m to fund Youth Work, Libraries, Parks, Crime Reduction and other non-statutory services. Other councils may reach this point even sooner.
We know that an incoming Labour Government intends to address the unfair way resources are distributed and we welcome that but by itself it will not resolve the problem.
An Independent Commission has been examining Local Government Finance (ICoLGF) and it published its conclusions recently. Its chair, Darra Singh, said:
“Local government and the services it provides are on a cliff-edge. Councils’ success at implementing cuts over the past few years has shielded people from the stark reality that the services they use can’t carry on as they are for much longer.”
The first recommendation of the ICoLGF is that “an independent review of the functions and sustainability of local government be undertaken in advance of the next government’s first spending review, to assess whether local authorities are appropriately funded to meet their statutory duties and to certify that all places are sufficiently funded.”
It is essential that the new government acts on this. Devolution is critical and can, by enabling approaches that involve earlier interventions and better outcomes, make a real difference, but if individual councils become financially unsustainable that opportunity could be lost.
Recent days have seen a growing controversy about Defence spending with military experts and even our Allies expressing concern. The US chief of staff, General Raymond Odierno said:
“I would be lying to you if I did not say that I am very concerned about the GDP investment in the UK.”
Between 2010/11 and 2014/15 in real terms spending on Defence was cut by 7%. Over the same period spending on Local Government was cut by 26.6% according to figures published by the Institute for Financial Studies.
After 5 years of bluster and obfuscation by the present Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government the time has come for an honest appraisal of the damage done, not because Local Government deserves special treatment but because continuing on the current path will damage families, communities, and even threaten the future of the NHS.
We must fervently hope that the next Secretary of State at DCLG finds a copy of the report of the ICoLGF waiting on their desk and acts swiftly to implement its recommendations. If he or she wants any assistance doing so I am sure Sir Richard and I would be willing to help out once more!
Sir Steve Bullock is the directly elected Mayor of Lewisham and a Deputy Leader of the LGA Labour Group. An extended version of the article can be found at http://www.mayorsteve.co.uk