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No funds for washing up liquid in the quest to be like Aldi

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Commentary on local government’s intensifying financial woes

Early on Saturday LGC will publish the latest instalment of its Council Tax Tracker, giving the clearest picture to have so far emerged of likely bills next year.

We’ll keep the bulk of our latest research exclusive until then (you can see our story after midnight by clicking here). But it will not come as a surprise that the vast majority of the 50 councils whose plans have so far been disclosed are going for something little short of the maximum possible increase.

The piece quotes a blog post by Kensington & Chelsea RBC’s leader Nick Paget-Brown (Con) in which he admits the financial crisis was making all councils feel “tempted” to reduce “class-leading” services. Cllr Paget-Brown likened the spending dilemmas he faced to “swapping from Waitrose to the perfectly acceptable Sainsbury’s”.

If even well-to-do K&C is contemplating giving up Waitrose (and putting up its council tax bills), you know austerity is biting. However for most of local government, Lidl or Aldi service levels are becoming an excessively optimistic aspiration. There isn’t the money to provide many basic services, let alone the sort of ones that had long been expected by users.

One prominent London local politician this week told LGC how he had never known so many of his counterparts around the country express doubts that they would be able to balance their books over the coming 18 months. He said his council would be OK for the coming couple of years but he could not contemplate how services will be maintained over a longer timescale.

This council’s officers were working flat-out, LGC was told. But what happened when something unexpected happened or – heaven forbid – a new opportunity arises? There simply wasn’t the managerial capacity to deal with it.

In one example of the sort of unpalatable decisions faced by councils, Kent CC has faced protests after proposing £75m cuts for the coming financial year, on top of the £500m it has saved over the past six years. Among its planned savings is £13.3m in social care and £2m to be gained “through smarter route organisation and intelligent procurement” of home-to-school transport for special education needs pupils. These two cuts were denounced as “offensive” by local unions who urged Kent to use its reserves to maintain services.

While one can very much understand the angst of council workers and service users, there is some irony that it was County Hall in Maidstone that was targeted by protestors, rather than the Treasury. And there is only so long that reserves can be eaten into.

In another example of the impact of cuts, the Chartered Institute for Public Finance & Accountancy has published research into the scale of library closures. Spending fell by £25m in the year to 2015-16, with a net loss of 67 libraries and 5% of paid library staff. The fact that LGC’s Confidence Survey in September saw senior local government officers name libraries as the service facing the gravest cuts suggests this year’s toll on libraries could be even worse.

Meanwhile, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has today warned rising demand for children’s social care at a time of stretched resources had left services at “increasing risk of [the] kind of system failure” that had contributed to high profile child deaths, such as those of Ayeeshia Smith and Daniel Pelka.

Thankfully not all of the consequences of austerity are so grave. In a less devastating example of the cuts’ impact, one senior officer who has recently started work with a new council expressed amazement to LGC that corporate services cuts had been so great that, as far as she could ascertain, there wasn’t any washing up liquid left in their civic centre. How can you wash up? she asked.

So ‘how can I wash up?’ has now joined the long list of ‘how can I…’ questions preoccupying local government. How can I balance my books, how can I save my local social care sector, how can I retain my staff, how can I keep my libraries open, how can I fund preventative measures… The list goes on.

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