This month will see councils set their tenth austerity budget. In the main any fat which could have been trimmed has been thoroughly cut and the so-called low-hanging fruit are long gone.
Despite the best efforts to innovate and transform services over the past decade, cuts to central government funding mean almost all councils are facing making unpalatable reductions in what they offer their residents. Forced into a position no officer or councillor would have chosen, how should these difficult decisions be communicated to the public?
The perilous state of council finances was bought into sharp focus for the public last year when Northamptonshire CC became the first council in decades to effectively go bust – issuing a section 114 notice declaring it could not set a balanced budget. As a result, next year the county council will be broken up and split into two.
Northamptonshire may be the most notorious example but it is not the only council to be caught out financially. Somerset and Worcestershire CCs are others that have struggled. What links them is not just financial woe but an unwillingness to face up to problems or communicate them frankly.
Tom Edwards, a journalist at BBC Hereford & Worcester, was a reporter at the Worcester News from 2012-17. Working on the paper at a time of growing financial problems within the county council he noted a lack of openness. There were roadshows addressing the public but “the nitty gritty” was absent. Under (previous) leader Adrian Hardman (Con) the council was trying to “keep a lid on it” rather than honestly communicate what was going on, Mr Edwards says.
So how should councils address the difficult circumstances they find themselves in? The first lesson, says John Fuller (Con) vice chair of the LGA’s resources board, is to listen to early warning systems in the form of “private candour”. The aforementioned councils were the subject of peer reviews pointing out serious funding problems. “In Northamptonshire even before members saw the gravity of the situation they had a peer review that showed serious financial problems.” You then need leaders who heed the warnings and make decisions for long term good rather than short term gain, he says. “Ultimately all that work should be expressed in a public budget that balances the books.”
Financial challenges affect everyone across local government now not just a few bad apples. But communicating the correct response is not easy, says Paul Masterman, a senior communications consultant. Part of the problem is that when austerity first hit, councils did what they always do - “rolled up their sleeves and got on with it under the banner of protecting frontline services,” he says. It lulled the public into a false sense of security and didn’t prepare them for the shock to come. “The mantra should be transparency always wins,” Mr Masterman says.
Simon Jones, head of LG Comms, says that with councils “entering the red zone financially” it’s more crucial than ever to be open with staff and public. “Comms should be playing a critical leadership role. It’s never been more important to have a voice at the top table,” he says. It’s not just about facts and figures you need to think about making the message accessible.
“The figures can be meaningless unless you explain what they are,” he says. “So a council says it’s saved £40m and still has to save an extra £52m by 2022 – what does that actually mean in budget terms? How much is it to keep a library open? Unless you drill down and put much more context around those numbers it doesn’t cut.”
You have to be hardheaded and you need vision, he says: “There’s a reluctance to be clear and bold. There’s a view that transformation is going to be a magic wand.”
One council that has won praise for the clarity of its message is East Sussex CC. In November the council’s chief executive Becky Shaw said the scale of its financial challenge “may risk our ability to meet statutory guidance and deadlines.” The council has admitted that preventative services are for the chop even though this might cost it more in the long run. Leader Keith Glazier (Con) said: “We’d all like to provide more than a core service because none of us came into politics to make cuts, but this proposal is presented as a realistic ambition in a time of austerity.”
Mr Masterman says the council deserve praise. “They were open from the start, there was nothing covert about it. It was reputationally risky.” At a national level it’s already paid off but how it is received locally will be the acid test of this approach, he says.
New thinking is required, not just the need for digital communication and social media, he says. But a whole new a new conversation with the public. “In some cases the public will have to provide services themselves or modify their behaviour. In a sense there needs to be a new conversation with residents what they can contribute.” This might mean lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise to improve local health outcomes. Or residents taking over the running of services, such as volunteers keeping libraries open.
There is of course another way – to tell the government to go to hell. Last September Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that he would “understand” councils who refused to balance their budgets. Yes, it ticks the box marked honesty, but will the public want the law to be flouted in this way? “My sense is that is a very difficult thing to do,” says Mr Jones. “Unlike the NHS, councils have a legal duty to set a balanced budget. I’m not aware of any council stepping out of that.” In short candour needs to respect the law. As several Labour council leaders pointed out, the lesson from Militant in the 1980s does not suggest the public respect illegal budgets.
There are two final reasons for candour. First it may put additional pressure on the government for better funding. Cllr Fuller points out that after East Sussex’s statements about core funding, an extra billion pounds was found for the sector in the budget. Coincidence? Perhaps. The other reason is impossible to argue with – avoid transparency and you will never be trusted again. You may even find your council has only a few months to live. Just ask Northamptonshire.