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Solace blog

2nd April 2015

Councils must reclaim universalism in an age of austerity

The state is retreating. This is no more visible than in local public services. Five years of austerity have driven huge cuts in local government with no prospect of respite in the next Parliament. Councils have responded admirably to this fiscal challenge, protecting support for the most vulnerable and transforming services.

This fiscal challenge has rightly driven a renewed focus on protecting those in greatest need. Universal and early intervention services in children’s social care are being cut in order to protect statutory children’s social care. The Care Act has formalised a social care system in which many with moderate needs are expected to pay a significant share of their own costs. Social housing provision is increasingly rare as more individuals and families find themselves in the private rental market. Spending on universal services like leisure, planning or transport continues to
fall as increasing majorities of local government expenditure are found in statutory children’s and adults social care.

Across public services we are witnessing a ‘retreat to the acute’. This approach is both understandable and perhaps admirable in the short term. Rhetoric is increasingly focussed on
the need for communities to do more for themselves – allowing the state to focus on those who are not able to do so.

However, pursuing such approaches in too blunt a fashion could be seriously damaging to the long-term prospects of local government and governance. Councils are potentially storing up a long-term challenge to their role as local democratic place-shapers.

Local government is unique in the UK public sector in the visibility of its funding base to local taxpayers. Business rates and council tax are highly salient and visible taxes paid by every local household and business. Yet they fund institutions that are increasingly spending the vast majority of their revenue on a small minority of their residents. This dislocation has the potential to drive disengagement and distrust if not addressed. Councils need to reclaim their wider, universal role as place-shaper and champion for their local residents. This will be difficult given ongoing fiscal
restraint but is vital for the health of local democracy. There are three key ways in which local government, and local public services, can begin to reclaim this role.

Firstly, devolution offers the opportunity for local democratic institutions to regain control over many areas of the public sector with a more universal impact. From transport to economic development to health – devolution offers the chance for locally elected politicians, and local democratic institutions, to influence and shape services that form a core part of almost everyone’s life. This is positive in its own right, making public services more flexible and responsive to those they serve. It also has the potential to rejuvenate local democracy.

Secondly, digital approaches offer the potential to recapture a degree of universalism. By their very nature, digital services are available to all – though we obviously need an ongoing focus on infrastructure and inclusion. Councils have a vital role in the future as ‘stewards of local public data’. By releasing reliable, accessible and standardised public data they will enable local people, businesses and other organisations to use this data to drive new services and opportunities. Digital technologies also enable councils to deliver information, advice and guidance services that are
orders of magnitude better than what was feasible even five years ago. These can also extend well beyond their boundaries and utilise real, crowd-sourced intelligence – from the SEN ‘local offer’ to real-time transport information or ‘Amazon-style’ reviews of local care homes or hospitals. More ambitiously, digital has the potential to revolutionise the way the citizen and the state interact and local government has the opportunity to be right at the heart of these changes.

Finally, councils will need to make even better use of their ‘informal power’. They will need to find new opportunities to exert their democratic mandate and influence for the benefit of their residents at low, or even no, cost. This can be done in any number of ways, and many councils are already leading the charge. Oldham Council’s Collective Energy Switching Scheme – now adopted by many other authorities – saved their local residents millions on their energy bills; with the council using its informal power to collectivise and strengthen their residents’ bargaining positions against the energy companies. Councils are increasing using the Social Value Act to leverage their contracts with local businesses to drive apprenticeships and good quality local employment. Finally, many councils are also using their informal power to challenge other public services locally. They are using scrutiny powers to call NHS Trust chief executives or academy heads to account. They are also increasingly the convener of local public service partnership boards; bringing public leaders together to offer mutual challenge and support. All of these approaches are minimal
cost, but use the informal power and democratic legitimacy of elected local government to drive improvements in the lives of the people living in their place.

Whatever the complexion of the new Government, local public services are in for another challenging five years. In this difficult climate, local councils will rightly continue to prioritise the residents who are in most need of their support.

However, if they are to retain their democratic and civic legitimacy they must also speak to the many. This does not mean returning to the municipal corporatism of the past. Instead, councils must lead the way in defining and delivering the ‘new universalism’ in public services.

Andy Hollingsworth, Senior Policy Officer, Solace