Responding to cuts agendas: councils' dilemmas

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
10 May 2011

The results of recent elections across the UK were mixed. In general, however, the Liberal Democrats did badly, and in England lost control of several local authorities. Though the Conservatives gained slightly, overall the number of Coalition-led councils was reduced, while Labour made major gains.

So now, yet more local authorities are led by councillors who are expected to impose drastic spending cuts forced on them by central government, but with which they strongly disagree. This may echo the experience of local government in a number of other countries too.

Some council members and senior officers who are ideologically committed to the Conservative-LibDem Coalition’s ambition to scale back the state appear to have few qualms about slashing public services. Other leaders however intensely dislike cutting libraries, street lighting, support to struggling families and day centres for frail older people – yet do so anyway.

In the 1980s, councillors who set unbalanced budgets in which expenditure was more than income risked being surcharged and facing personal financial ruin. Later, if a council tried to set a budget which would end up in the red, the chief finance officer was made responsible for issuing an urgent warning to councillors, who would have to hold an emergency meeting to sort out the problem, and in the meantime stopping new agreements which involved spending money. So it became very difficult for councils to avoid imposing central government spending cuts on local people.

In addition, in recent decades the Labour Party put strong pressure on those who wanted to be electoral candidates to appear 'moderate'. Moreover, when it was in power, it issued frequent directives to local government and kept setting targets which had to be met, so that politicians and senior officers got used to following orders from on high, whether or not these made sense in a local context.

In the past three decades, both Conservative and Labour national politicians have helped to foster a culture of obedience within local government.

What, then, can local people reasonably expect of their councils, except to voice regret locally at having to make harsh cuts and tell central government that they are unhappy? And what can councillors and senior officers do if they want to oppose the cuts in more than a symbolic way?

I would suggest, to start with, that councillors and officers concerned about cuts should not only provide information, but also listen, to local people, especially the most vulnerable and least vocal. This includes listening to frontline staff, some of whom are also local residents. This may at times be uncomfortable. But without two-way communication, it will be near-impossible to build effective alliances.

Taking account of what local people say may involve admitting and addressing past shortcomings. Central government’s claims that its draconian cuts to local government funding should not affect services, and that the money can be saved by trimming back unnecessary bureaucracy and waste, are clearly hollow.

Yet unless justified criticisms are taken seriously (and almost every organisation has some room for improvement), it will be harder to challenge those which are unfair.

In addition, senior councillors and officers may wish to consider cutting back their pay or putting some of their income back into the community they serve. In recent years, rewards for those at the top in public services have risen steeply, in an attempt to imitate the private sector. Scaling back on such practices will only make a small difference to the amount which is being cut, but it will demonstrate some degree of solidarity with those who are hardest hit. It is also often true that, as Jesus put it, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6.21).

There is still a need to educate some sections of the public both on the value of certain services and the human cost of losing these (especially if, like support for looked-after children and carers, few people have any direct experience of these).

Here, councils and users together can help their neighbours understand the harsh impact of what is taking place. There are also some claims by central government which many still appear to believe – for instance that there is no money for public spending, while billions of pounds are being spent on war in Afghanistan.

In finding ways to resist the cuts together, councillors, officers and local people may find it useful to think creatively, drawing on examples from the history of nonviolent direct action. Indeed there are things which can be done which, though legal, could embarrass the government or make its task of downgrading, and in some cases dismantling, public services harder.

For example, suppose a council prepared a detailed impact assessment showing how a much-reduced budget would harm local people, then sent a £10,000 consultancy fee (donated by councillors and senior officers) to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, inviting him to advise on how to make the cuts without affecting residents? Or what if national pro-cuts politicians or advisors living locally were publicly challenged to shadow council staff doing manual jobs with anti-social hours, in preparation for volunteering for such tasks?

The risks which councillors and officers are willing to take in opposing the cuts will be influenced by their personal circumstances and characters. However, even those who are quite cautious may be able to find imaginative ways to join in resisting the damage to local services which is being caused by central government’s policies.

Simply saying that they are uncomfortable about cutting services may otherwise carry little weight with those whose quality of life is badly affected, or who are endangered by the cuts, such as the women and men who cannot escape domestic violence because refuges have lost funding.

Sharing ideas at a local, regional and national level, and discussing how to respond to the threat of cuts, will not always be easy. There will sometimes be different views about the best way forward, and feelings of anger and loss may surface. Yet alliances among those opposed to the harsh cuts which central government is seeking to force on local authorities could strengthen effective resistance.

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© Savitri Hensman works in community care and equalities. She is a long-standing and respected writer and commentator on Christian social action and theology, as well as an Ekklesia associate.

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