“Public service cuts – did we notice?” asked BBC News back in October, publishing the results of a recent ICM Poll. The item parallels a commonly circulated argument that the unprecedented 28% cuts to local government’s central grant have been delivered without significantly impacting local services. Can this really be true?
For the Coalition, such polls provide evidence that cuts are necessary for creating streamlined services. The local government trade press prefer a heroic narrative, focussing on local authorities as the ‘most efficient part of the public sector’. From an academic perspective, John (2013) has termed local government the ‘great survivor’; out-competing other local organisations through its resilient political and managerial core and flexible menu of administrative functions. The problem with these interpretations is that they share a tendency to over simplify the multi-layered process of delivering local savings. They also negate deep-seated changes that are occurring under a veneer of stability.
So why haven’t spending reductions translated tangibly to service reductions?
Firstly, it depends on your perspective. Research by Sheffield Hallam University and Joseph Rowntree Foundation has demonstrated that cuts have ‘hit the poorest areas hardest’, whilst more affluent areas have experienced lower levels of change. Secondly, local authorities themselves are contributing to the impression that ‘nothing has happened’ by delivering massive savings through a root and branch re-appraisal of local services.
Shared services across two or more authorities are increasingly common, raising questions about local political accountability. ‘Commercialism’ is the contemporary buzz-word as services compete to produce ever leaner business models and lever-in income. Contracts with the private and voluntary sectors are coming under pressure as authorities adopt a tougher approach to commissioning, rather than the partnership ethos espoused in better-resourced era of ‘network governance’. Fundamental re-thinking is occurring on the extent to which local authorities can support the ‘big ticket’ issues such as social care, libraries and leisure. Whilst many would applaud such ‘efficiencies’, these changes are not value-free, and represent an extensive reappraisal of the way we deliver public services.
However, efficiencies are not the whole story. There is also evidence of a continuous, but subtle resistance at an individual and institutional level to mitigate the worst effects of degradation of services. Janet Newman reminds us that there are “multiple spaces of power and resistance with which actors engage – pragmatically as well as politically” and in some cases these spaces of power are being exploited at a local level to protect the most vulnerable.
For example from a political perspective, decisions have been made in some councils to instigate a living wage for the lowest paid staff, whilst pay freezes have been accepted by higher paid staff as a necessary trade-off. There has been evidence of ‘gaming’ around elements of welfare reform with authorities exploring the re-designation of bedrooms in order to protect tenants from the bedroom tax, or directly employing benefit claimants to avert a benefits cap. Despite cynicism about the ‘big society’, new spaces are also opening up for faith and citizens groups to engage with service delivery – organisations such as the Trussel Trust and Citizens UK have seen their national influence grow as the state contracts.
In short, the perception that ‘nothing has happened’ is arguably the result of continuous and strenuous effort by many actors at myriad levels. This goes beyond a recycling of previous ideas and solutions to genuine attempts to design and enact alternative outcomes. However, these changes are occurring in a piecemeal fashion, with varying impacts, internal contradictions, and limited national debate or direction.
The LGA and Parliamentary Political and Constitutional Reform Committee have called for a fundamental re-think on Councils’ role and functions; and debate on the powers of English local government will be fuelled by fresh negotiations on settlements for Wales and Scotland. In the meantime the apparent capacity of Councils to absorb the spending cuts allows constitutional innovation to be metaphorically kicked down the road by successive administrations, whilst spending cuts carve subterranean caverns within local government’s future capabilities. If we fail to spot the differences occurring to our public services now, we may one day awake to find that the local picture of public services we want and expect to see has been altered out of recognition.
Alison Gardner is a doctoral research student in the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics, studying how local public services are responding to conditions of austerity. Prior to starting her PhD she worked for 14 years as a policy advisor and consultant in and around local and national government.