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Explaining cuts in the face of recovery

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Politicians are often accused of being out of touch with the people they serve. The cynical view is that taking public office blinds councillors to the everyday problems faced by their constituents.

I would argue the opposite is true. The view from the town hall enhances our understanding of the issues facing communities, and often gives us forewarning of problems to come.

The decisions taken in Whitehall take time to have an impact at local level. Three years ago, when cuts to local government funding were announced, it was very difficult to explain in any meaningful way the impact they would have on services.

The numbers were just too big and the concepts too abstract. Many of our residents looked around, noticed that the bins were still being collected and the streets cleaned, and asked themselves what the fuss was all about.

It didn’t help that local government’s critics erected a number of straw men to confuse the issue. And isolated poor practice in one council has often been falsely presented as evidence of systemic inefficiency and waste across the board.

But our message that the deepest cuts in the public sector would hurt vital local services has got through and is finding increasing resonance among the public.

A recent Ipsos MORI poll on local government cuts shows the number of people concerned about the future of local services has grown from 55% in January to 66% in August. I believe these concerns will become even more acute in the coming months, as the impact the cuts are having on services becomes more severe.

We should not take for granted the public recognition of the very difficult position in which local government has been placed.

Recently Bank of England governor Mark Carney said the UK economic recovery had “taken hold”. If this continues, people will rightly expect growing national prosperity to deliver improvements in their standard of living. They will expect this to be reflected in their income and in their public services.

In 2015-16 local government will have to make the deepest single-year cuts ever. This will be an enormous challenge. The biggest part of that challenge might well be explaining to the public why it’s happening at a time when they feel the worst is over and that the economy has turned the corner.

Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman, LGA

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