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The barometer dips

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Reading the responses to LGC’s latest confidence barometer was a sobering experience.

In the wake of July’s local government finance settlement and as councils brace themselves for next week’s autumn statement, senior officers are more downbeat than ever both about their ability to protect local services and about central government’s willingness to listen to them.

Net confidence that roads and highways would be protected from cuts is now at -76%, and for adult social care it is now at -72%.

Even waste collection, which has so far been relatively safe from the axe, looks set to be hit: confidence that this service would be protected from cuts was -56%.

This contrasts sharply with LGC’s findings just six months ago, when net confidence that it had been protected was +20%.

Coupled with this is a greater sense of pessimism than ever before about councils’ degree of influence.

Confidence that the government was listening to councils fell to -93%, down from -87% in May.

Asked whether councils had more power and more control over how they spent central government funding, respondents painted a similar picture, as shown by the graph below.

In line with a familiar pattern in LGC’s series of confidence surveys, satisfaction with the Department for Communities & Local Government’s ministerial team lagged behind satisfaction with the coalition government overall, with DCLG receiving a net satisfaction score of -90% compared with the government’s rather better -64%. On the whole, the government was given an average of 2.5 out of 10 for its localist credentials.

There is a greater sense of pessimism than ever before about councils’ influence

There was relative optimism about some areas of government policy, particularly the transfer of public health to local government and the troubled families programme.

However, perhaps worryingly for a mechanism seen as crucial to the future of local government, respondents put community budgets close to the bottom of the pile, above only welfare reform in the list of policies in the table below.

In the context of worsening gloom about local services, one surprising piece of potential silver lining emerged. Thirty-five per cent of respondents from counties said public satisfaction with their services had increased since 2010, compared with just 13% who believed it had fallen.

At districts and London boroughs, too, more respondents believed satisfaction had improved than fallen.

2.5 - government’s localist credentials, average rating out of 10

Mets and unitaries, as shown in the box below, were the only councils whose senior staff were more likely to believe public satisfaction had fallen than increased.

And for all types of authority, the largest group of respondents thought public satisfaction had stayed about the same since the cuts began more than three years ago.

The government is likely to claim this as evidence that waste and inefficiency in local government has made it possible to save money without the public noticing - or even with positive effects. Other explanations could include a change in the public’s viewpoint: people start to value local services more when they are under threat, or to lower their expectations and be more satisfied as a result.

It could be that much of council spending - on social care in particular - is invisible to most residents, and only the vulnerable will have felt the impact of a reduction in services. Or that the scale of cutbacks has forced councils to become more resident-led, and to focus their attention on the services residents value the most.

Methodology

The regular survey took place between 6 and 21 November, with answers from 238 council chief executives, deputy chiefs, directors and senior managers.

Net confidence scores are calculated by subtracting the negative scores from the positive.

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