With the general election delivering a conclusive outcome for austerity measures for local government, it’s time for councils to knuckle down and address their medium-term financial strategies in earnest.
There is no light at the end of the tunnel for now and in the interests of their residents, businesses, services and workforce, councils must ensure their financial plans are sustainable and, most importantly, that they are planning and delivering ahead of the curve.
That means coming to terms with the loss of government grant and the imperative of building alternative income streams. Millions of pounds have already been taken out of council spending through efficiencies, transformation, re-commissioning and alternative delivery. Our services are probably as efficient as they have ever been; a good place to be starting from.
However, if the sector is to avoid reducing services to unacceptable levels and failing its most dependent, it has to find new revenue streams. As the national economy grows, each council must drive its own growth strategy, firmly interfaced with its financial strategy.
Councils must ensure their local economies get a share of the growth, delivering benefits such as jobs for local people, contracts for local businesses, footfall for local traders, and new housing, as well as increasing the revenue income.
Councils can no longer be bystanders; they must use their own assets to support that strategy. Although many councils are feeling hard done by, they still hold a wide range of assets such as land, property, reserves and treasury management capacity. We must use our assets proactively to intervene and drive local economic growth and invest in projects that deliver income, either as direct income, business rate growth, council tax base growth or new homes bonus.
This places councils at the heart of building local prosperity and place-shaping. Yes, it is going to be hard to provide good services and make further spending reductions. It’s too easy for councils and their workforces to spiral into despair; all the more reason to ensure that councils’ agendas are ambitious.
Some may say that it all very well for cities or the south-east, but that there is no potential in their own neck of the woods.
But good local government has always been about understanding a place and providing local leadership to ensure the wellbeing of the community. Governments will come and go but localities depend on the continuity of their council to find a way through the tough times.
The way we have delivered over the past five years should fill us with confidence for what we can achieve. It’s time for councils to grasp the nettle; a great time for local government.
Mary Ney, commissioner, Rotherham MBC