Readers of a certain age will vividly remember the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It was the second largest oil disaster in US history.
Among the contributory factors was that the coastguard had stopped tracking ships leaving the Sound. The reason? There had never been an accident, so there was no need to continue this practice and savings could be made. With hindsight, ceasing the tracking was the epitome of a false economy.
The NAO is incredibly pleased at the positive reception to our recent report, Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities 2018. We set out to state definitively the funding position of local government and how that has changed in recent years. Moreover, while recognising that local authorities have generally coped well with cuts in their grants, we also wanted to shed light on the consequences of funding cuts for services. And for some services, such as waste collection and recycling, fly-tipping, food safety, bus services, and road maintenance, we were able to set out reductions in activities.
A lack of data prevented us going further: Figure 15 in the report sets out a number of services experiencing significant funding reductions of up to 67.5%, but for which there is no national service activity dataset. So for many functions, including important environment and regulatory, housing and planning, highways and transport and cultural services, we cannot state the loss of facilities and services that have taken place, thus limiting Parliament’s and the public’s ability to hold government to account.
One of the first actions of the Coalition Government in 2010 was to dismantle the Best Value oversight regime. Even supporters of Best Value like myself would accept that some change was warranted by that point, but perhaps the baby was thrown out with the bathwater as the national indicator set was removed and authorities were left to their own benchmarking devices. As a result, if the department is to learn from the mistake of the Prince William Sound coastguard, it must continue to strengthen its oversight and assurance mechanisms if the local government ship is not to run aground.
Abdool Kara executive leader for local services at the National Audit Office (NAO)