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In case it hadn't already, austerity's impact is hitting home for staff

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Write your list, bake a cake and fetch the festive jumpers from the depths of your drawers – for there are 74 days until Christmas.

LGC apologies for mentioning the C-word already, but it appears it is already on the lips of many council workers, if not necessarily for any upbeat reason.

Cambridgeshire CC has become the latest council to enforce unpaid leave on staff over the festive period.

With a projected overspend of £14.6m for the current financial year, enforcing mandatory unpaid leave for Cambridgeshire’s council staff on 27, 28 and 31 December will save the county about £900,000.

This comes after Somerset CC voted in September to force council staff to take two days’ unpaid leave over the next two Christmas holidays, saving it an estimated £500,000 a year.

Cambridgeshire leader Steve Count (Con) warned last month that the council’s “situation looks dire” unless it took “serious action now”.

Should staff at either council have been left in any doubt about the impact of austerity on residents and the services they use, it will almost certainly be hitting home now. The chances are other councils will be implementing similar money-saving schemes in the future.

While undoubtedly necessary, short-term savings measures like this could have a long-term downside. Not only does it risk creating a disgruntled workforce and prompting some staff to seek employment elsewhere (possibly not in the public sector), but it might also put prospective employees off working in local government which need as many of the brightest brains as it can get.

In its recent history the sector has never needed innovative ways to run services more urgently.

Analysis published today by the Chartered Institute for Public Finance & Accountancy and the Institute for Government shows that central and local government have, in their bid to save money, up to now sought to “quietly” transfer the cost of many services, such as running libraries, on to individuals and volunteers.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Done right, councils which harness the goodwill and innovation in the voluntary and community sector can deliver services that are better tailored to their residents.

However, this is not always suitable, nor is it a sustainable model if budgets continue to be cut.

Cipfa and the Institute for Government have voiced “serious concerns” specifically about the sustainability of adult social care and neighbourhood services, as well as prisons. All of these services, both organisations said, require an increase in funding.

Cipfa chief executive Rob Whiteman said: “If the government wants to deliver the kind of services that communities expect and need, then they must be willing to fashion a new sustainable funding model. To achieve this, bolder, braver and perhaps politically-unpopular decisions will have to be made.”

Theresa May offered a glimmer of hope when she told Conservative party conference that she was “ending austerity”.

But when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn specifically asked during prime minister’s questions this week if austerity for councils will be brought to an end, Ms May was far from convincing.

She spoke of how the government had “backed councils” with £200bn funding between 2015 and 2020 and added: “We will see an increase of £1.3bn in the money available to councils over the next two years, extra money for social care was announced at our party conference – councils have access to over £9.6bn of dedicated funding in relation to that – and there is a £31m increase for rural services.

“Yes, we have had to make tough decisions, and yes, councils have been asked to make tough decisions. The reason we had to do that was the state of the public finances and the economy that we were left by the Labour government.

“People have made sacrifices and they need to know that their hard work has paid off. Yes, better times are ahead, under a Conservative government.”

The sector is unlikely to hold its breath for a sudden reversal of swingeing cuts in the run-up to the autumn Budget, or while it awaits the outcome of the fair funding review, or in anticipation of next year’s spending review.

In the meantime, the impact of austerity is not just being shunted onto residents and volunteers but staff too. We’re all in this together, indeed.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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