Future Council by Gordon & Prober of Essex County Council, explores the role of the local authority in a changing public service landscape.
On 20th October 2010, in response to an alarming deficit in the public finances, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the tightest squeeze on public spending since the end of World War II. The Coalition Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review sought to restore discipline to the public finances and, in doing so, made cuts to departmental budgets averaging 11% to 2014-15. Substantially larger cuts will be borne by local authorities (c.27% of centrally funded spending to 2014-15).1 The 2011 Autumn Statement heralded significant additional spending cuits through to 2017.
Although necessary, these cuts have brought debate about the future role of local authorities into the mainstream. For many local government leaders, they have thrown a spotlight on the need to reduce costs, manage down staff numbers and pare back service provision. For others, these cuts signal the start of a generation of public sector austerity – the first step in a chain of events that will squeeze service funding and increase service pressures. But, for a third group, these cuts are merely the latest chapter in their ongoing work to transform local services to provide a sustainable, locally determined offer that meets the needs of today’s citizens.
For this group, the long-term challenges facing local services predate the 2011 Autumn Statement, the 2010 Spending Review, the recession of 2008-09 and the financial crisis of 2007-08. They have their root in the UK’s changing demography; in changing attitudes to community; in the growth of new technologies and new forms of media; and in the tensions between each individual’s role as taxpayer, citizen and consumer of public services.
Whether as a response to funding cuts or wider trends, traditional local authority operating models are now giving way to commissioning-led practices. Many local authorities already recognise that while they have a responsibility to ensure that services are provided, they need not necessarily provide these directly. And yet, as councils move to commission more services, there is a risk that, without a clear strategic vision, piecemeal decision-making could limit the scope for truly transformational change.
This paper, therefore, aims to stimulate debate on what councils could, and should, look like in five to ten years time. We hope that, from this debate, all levels of government can reach a consensus on how local authorities might address the common challenges they face and how national decision-makers can best support local developments.