Time for a fightback
This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.
The first few months of the year are grim at the best of times, but this January felt particularly bleak for those of us working at the local level.
News of section 114 notices – pending and issued – came thick and fast as the local government financial crisis accelerated. I found myself wondering frequently about how hospitals and councils manage to motivate and encourage staff in a context where they are being continually told that there are no resources to deliver the quality of care that we would all want for our loved ones.
“a backwards shift”
Adding to this grim picture is the further stripping back, not just of funding, but of the standards which govern how public resources should be used. In particular, both the moves to allow councils to sell off their assets in order to plug holes in budgets and the reports of decreasing social value ratings for procurement in cash-strapped councils signal a backwards shift to the days when the concept of value was focused on financial return alone.
This is particularly depressing because, in recent years, and supported by the government’s own Levelling Up White Paper and the new Procurement Act, the local public sector has been able to make great strides in using their purchasing power to support wider objectives for their place. We’ve seen hospitals, councils and housing associations work together to support people in long term unemployment into entry level jobs in their organizations and housing associations working together to explore how to use retrofit to build new climate friendly sectors in their economies.
The pressure coming from central government to sell off publicly owned assets, to strip out social value from procurement, to pull down wages and conditions, all of these have wider implications for the whole economy. This kind of action sends a signal about the health of our democratic system and about the standards that we as a country are prepared to accept. It says that we do not value a high standard of public services, that our country does not value the social, economic and environmental impacts of service delivery.
We are constantly told that there is no money to support public services, but yet we live in a country where wealth has grown 100-fold since 1970 to £12tn. And it’s not just a historic trend – in the 14 years since austerity was first implemented, the richest 1% of people in the UK have multiplied their wealth thirty one times more than the rest of us. There is no shortage of wealth in this country, but we’re letting it slip through our fingers.
“a glimmer of hope”
To date, the government at Westminster have attempted to rewrite history by blaming councils for mismanagement. But citizens will not be fooled – and therein lies a glimmer of hope in all this bleakness.
Political parties think that the general public don’t care about councils, which is why, electorally, they are not on the agenda – but they’re wrong. People care about their bus services and the support their family will receive when their health fails them. They care about libraries and high streets and what jobs are out there for their kids when they leave school.
That is why councils and their partners should open their town halls (if they still have them!) and get the people and businesses in their area involved in the debate. We need a nationwide campaign which tells the story of how, in a nation of huge wealth, basic services for the most vulnerable, administered by our local governments, have systemically been squeezed dry by Westminster. How, despite the odds, councils and their partners have bent over backwards to protect services and the vulnerable, but that – even given their great effort – there is no commitment from a current or future government to get a grip and sort it out.
“when you defund local institutions you also undermine local economies”
Armed with the data about how much local government has lost and the value it provides, we can work together to show the long term consequences and opportunity cost of this change for our economies now and in the future. We have to show that when you defund local institutions you also undermine local economies. And that this has consequences, not just locally but collectively across the nation.
Given how serious the crisis facing local government is we have to stop waiting, we have to stop reacting, now is the time to build a consensus for change and to bring out communities with us. The next government of the UK needs to pay attention.