LGC’s essential daily briefing.
Depressing outlook: Melanie Dawes: Sustainability is defined as ‘statutory services’ only
A more uplifting tale: Rotherham: How we turned around failing children’s services
Environment enthusiast: Gove wants more councils to collect food waste separately
All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head, I want to drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow.
And I find it kinda funny, I find it kinda sad
The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had
I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it’s a very very
Mad world, mad world
Mad World was Tears for Fears’ first big hit and came off the band’s 1983 debut album, The Hurting.
Much has been made of the melancholic lyrics but they are said to have been influenced by the theories of Arthur Janov, author of The Primal Scream. In that the psychologist argued the trauma caused by painful past experiences could be resolved by expressing any repressed anger and frustration while re-experiencing those events.
During the last decade local government has been subject to an onslaught of painful experiences due to austerity and the sector, full of repressed anger and frustration, is most definitely hurting.
Events have come to a head in 2018 with Northamptonshire CC issuing not one, but two, section 114 notices while financial concerns at plenty of other councils are being highlighted with somewhat alarming regularity.
While some onlookers have argued Northamptonshire’s financial failings were more about a lack of leadership as opposed to a lack of resources, it is becoming increasingly hard for ministers and civil servants to turn a blind eye when a growing number of Tory shires are repeatedly raising alarms about their accounts.
A new term has entered local government lexicon this year: core offer. East Sussex CC has led the charge on this one and, earlier this month, it outlined in detail its minimum core offer of services. The council warned that preventive services are set to be hit hardest even though chief executive Becky Shaw acknowledged their “removal may lead to increased costs in the long term”.
Surrey CC is facing a funding gap of £36m in 2018-19, rising to £86m by the end of 2019-20. This rises to £94m the following year. Departing leader David Hodge (Con) has urged the government to introduce a 10-year funding plan for social care services or risk the system being “brought to a standstill”.
There are more examples and, when taken together, it is clear there is a problem here.
Yesterday the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government permanent secretary Melanie Dawes was quizzed by MPs on what she considered to be a definition of sustainability for councils.
She said: “Local government is sustainable if the amount of resources available to it can deliver the statutory services which it is required to do. That is what Parliament has laid out and that is our primary focus.”
Put another way, if councils can deliver the bare minimum then that is fine in the government’s eye. It is becoming a race to the bottom.
How depressing. How defeatist. How lacking in ambition.
While the Budget undoubtedly contained more cash for councils than they had anticipated, an LGC briefing in the immediate aftermath outlined why austerity is far from over for local government.
In interviews with LGC last week both housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire and local government minister Rishi Sunak sought to emit a sense of optimism ahead.
However, a straw poll of council officers at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers’ annual summit last month showed the majority predicted next year’s spending review will bring ’more of the same’. And what the sector has become accustomed to in recent times is just enough sticking plasters to keep everyone, or at least most people, quiet.
At the time Ms Dawes joked that the ministry did not “have a problem about managing expectations”.
That may be the case but perhaps Ms Dawes and all at the ministry should raise their aspirations for local authorities too.
While delivering statutory services might be sticking to the letter of the law, it fails to see the bigger picture of what doing the bare minimum will have on communities in both the short and long-term.
Former Local Government Association chief executive Carolyn Downs, now Brent LBC chief, said on Twitter: “It is the very cuts to non-statutory services that are driving demand in statutory services!”
It is not just that though. Councils do more than just deliver services for those who need it most. They shape places people want to live in and they bring communities together.
Even three years ago Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese (Lab) warned of the wider economic impact of cuts to non-statutory services can have on an area.
“Quality of place, housing, schools, parks, libraries – all the things we are talking about getting absolutely hammered in current spending rounds are absolutely essential to economic growth, and absolutely essential [to] creating places where people want to live,” he said.
“Having places where people want to live is absolutely essential to having companies that want to be in and grow in these places.”
And yet all around the sector there are worn out places and worn out faces, behind which are people doing their very best in very difficult circumstances. But with no significant easing of austerity looming on the horizon for local authorities, there is a sense of going nowhere and running around in circles. And when people do that, it’s a very, very mad world indeed.
David Paine, acting news editor