Council Budgets and Public Wellbeing

The Tory government continues to cut public sector budgets. In particular, the amount of money available to councils has been reduced and continues to be reduced. In response to this councils have been looking at ways to cut their budgets and reduce their costs while providing services in a way that is acceptable to the local population. Many have held budget consultations with local people about this. Some have gone so far as to look at restructuring the way the council works. All in an effort to balance the budget cuts versus service provision see-saw.

On top of this, while making cuts to council budgets, central government is issuing injunctions to maintain council services and releasing statements that give the impression there is plenty of money in council coffers. They have said, for example, that more than £3.5 billion has been made available to councils to support social care for the vulnerable and older people. At the same time and in the name of budget savings, many councils are commissioning inadequate services such as 15 minute social care visits. How much, you may ask, can be done in 15 minutes?

These central government actions are making things difficult for councils of every stripe. All the more reason for councils to include everyone involved and to think very carefully about the best possible ways to use all the available resources. This includes meeting with and listening to service users, residents and businesses in an on-going conversation. Apart from clearer budget setting, improved service design and better service provision, it is surely good PR to have the public on your side opposing central government cuts to their services.

So what is actually happening? Let’s look at one of the Core Cities, Newcastle upon Tyne. “Ambition in the Face of Austerity” sets out Newcastle City Council’s budget for 2016-17. It proposes reductions to budgets and cuts to services. These reductions and cuts appear alongside a set of broad principles and general commitments. There is, however, little connection between the principles and commitments, and the reductions and cuts.

Worse still, there is a gap between the council’s position and the people affected. “Ambition in the Face of Austerity” appears on the council’s website alongside a number of Integrated Impact Assessments and background documents. Taken together this documentation represents an internal service review. There is no place for people who use these services and no place for people living and working in Newcastle. This may seem surprising given the council’s role in governing, representing and being accountable to these very people. Take wellbeing and health, a major area of public concern. What the council documentation shows is that many wellbeing and health services are to be reduced and responsibility for the consequences is to be passed to health providers, community groups and families. Newcastle City Council no longer view local wellbeing and health as their responsibility.

Other councils have not taken such a ‘like it or lump it’ approach to their budget. Other councils have not decided that the wellbeing and health of their residents has nothing to do with them. Some have undertaken a revision of their approach to both budgeting and to budget consultation. Some have asked their public not ‘which services should we cut?’ but ‘how are we going to maintain and improve the services you need?’. By doing this they are able to reprofile their spending plans and reallocate their resources. Some councils have undertaken a whole systems review in order to reduce the impact of central government budget reductions and improve the suitability of the services they provide.

Considering the national situation and the necessity of public involvement it would be better for councils to think again and to reconsider their options. Indeed it would be better for the whole public sector to work with services users, residents, local groups and businesses to find both a different way of making budget savings and a better way of providing wellbeing and health services for local people.