Setting this year’s annual budget will be the toughest ever for at least the last 30 years for UK councils.
The ‘perfect storm’ of 10 years of imposed austerity, plus a global pandemic – meaning higher costs and reduced income – has created impossible conditions for most councils and combined authorities as they struggle to prioritise essential over non-essential services.
Will service prioritisation and poring over lists of typically unpalatable budget cut proposals – 10%, 15%, 20% in some cases from each council department be the answer – or is there something more fundamental councils could consider about their role and purpose within the place?
Rarely do we take the time to step back, take a helicopter view and think about clarity of organisational purpose when approaching the budget. An essential strategic prerequisite to informed decision-making can sometimes be viewed as a fluffy luxury that we do not have time for because of the urgency of the situation in which we find ourselves.
Budget setting tends to be an acceptance of status quo and then a tactical plan to get through to the other side with most things intact and huge budget savings delivered, but the original role and purpose of the organisation remains static and unchanged.
Some authorities may have an ambition to be a co-operative council, an asset-based, neighbourhood-based or community-focused organisation; however there can be a weak, if not non-existent connection between strategy and finance, between a clearly defined core purpose and the tough job of setting the budget.
In some places this is seen as a heroic director of finance job. The power rests with them and the portfolio holder and leader rather than the whole organisation and its stated core purpose.
As a result, some services are decimated down to a skeleton of their former selves; slimmed down to such an extent they aren’t really services at all, but an anorexic shadow of their former selves and merely a pragmatic exercise in threshold management.
Unless people or their families are literally in danger of losing their lives imminently they can’t be accessed, or there is a one year waiting list during which time people go away to get worse.
If a council or an integrated care system has taken a conscious decision to be asset-based, focused on prevention, neighbourhoods and people that means a transference of power to communities – letting go of control and a permanent ongoing discussion with communities about what is important to them.
Elected members are pivotal to this as the interface between communities and the organisation but there is sometimes a tendency to focus on the reporting of dog poo hotspots or sitting in scrutiny committees listening to officer presentations.
Councillors are ideally placed to be the conduits of community power, the vessels through which it can flow along with local community groups and mutual aid.
We need to listen to them about what is working in their local area and what isn’t and then have the courage to stop doing things.
We need to close down the stuff that isn’t working. This is hard, but essential if we are to repurpose the traditional role on a long-term sustainable basis of local government from provider to enabler, from paternalistic ‘we know best’ to co-producer, from parent/child to human/human social contract and a partnership from reaction to long-term prevention and an alliance with citizens. We have to rethink ourselves before we set the budget.
Professor Donna Hall CBE is chair of New Local