The framework for public local service delivery and governance has shifted dramatically in the wake of the financial crisis, and the political changes brought in by the new coalition government. But, is the changing framework one of cuts to chaos, retraction of the state to riots, or could it possibly be from recession to renewal?
A number of pieces of government apparatus have been spat out of the government ‘toaster’, for example the Audit Commission and the Tenant Services Authority. Regulation of local government services has been reduced to a reactive, last-stop mechanism.
Representative organisations have also been threatened, such as the National Tenant Voice who will no longer receive government funding. This presents a scenario where public service organisations are less scrutinised, and service users have less power to be heard when they do complain.
Cuts could lead to chaos. Couple the cuts in regulation and voice, with the withdrawal of services, charging additional fees and capping or withdrawing benefits and there is a recipe for public disquiet.
The test case brought by the Disability Law Service (on behalf of McDonald) against Kensington and Chelsea RBC, when night-time support services in the home were withdrawn, have wide ramifications for other councils, and a huge impact on the dignity of individual service users.
Proposals on ‘workfare’ and the capping of housing benefit could leave many with the prospect of having to move from cities that they call home. Also, the raising of student fees could put a university education beyond the reach of many, and we have seen the reaction during the student protests in London. Retraction of the state could lead to riots.
However, the financial crisis and the cuts to public sector funding also offer opportunities too. Our new book (with a foreword from Ken Livingstone) examines the possibilities coming out of the financial crisis, as well as the challenges.
Firstly, there is the opportunity to learn the lessons from the causes of the recession and to remember that greed in the markets was to blame – not public services. In our attempts to reduce local government budgets, we should not let current political rhetoric crowd out the facts of the crisis.
Secondly, there is scope to remember the role and rationale for government – do we just deliver public services or do we lead and connect communities? The book explores the context and possibilities for leadership and governance.
Third, and finally, is the possibility to empower service users within the new government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda. There are opportunities for innovation in service delivery, choice and empowerment.
It is vital to hold the government to account if this is really going to work – there cannot be a ‘Big Society’ without investment in education and industry, protection of vulnerable groups, as well as leadership of places and connected communities. Recession could lead to renewal.
Jo Richardson, principal lecturer, Centre for Comparative Housing Research, De Montfort University, Leicester
From Recession to Renewal: The impact of the financial crisis on public services and local government
Edited by Joanna Richardson Published in paperback and hardback by the Policy Press, Bristol