The Vulnerabilities of Local Government Liveability Services

In today’s post, Paul O’Brien reports on the findings of recent research that highlights the dangers posed by changes in local government for the sustainability of basic ‘liveability’ services.

The past month has been a tumultuous one for British politics. Following the referendum result in favour of Brexit, we have a new government, led by Theresa May, who has set the need to tackle the problem of inequality and to develop an inclusive economy at the forefront of her policy agenda.

A crucial aspect of this will be to tackle a looming problem that the previous government’s fiscal policy set in motion regarding neighbourhood level ‘liveability’ services. Much of the previous government’s attention was focussed upon avoiding the ‘jaws of doom’ scenario, of rising demand and underfunding of health and social care. The recent 2% health and social care precept has eased some of the pain. However less than 5% of our local population will experience social care, compared to the vast majority of local residents that rely upon on our neighbourhood level ‘liveability’ services.

On a daily basis virtually all citizens will walk in a well-lit local street. Many will drive on local roads, take their children to play in a local park, or go for a swim in a council-run pool. Local businesses benefit from public realm within local high streets. Residents will experience refuse and recycling collections provided directly to their own homes.

It is the sheer volume of these liveability services, and how they impact on the lives of our local residents, that prompted APSE with the New Policy Institute (NPI) to explore the funding vulnerabilities of these services, when compared to the priority necessarily given to social care. Our research, published in May 2016, ‘Sustainable local government finance and liveable local areas: Can we survive to 2020?’ led by Dr Peter Kenway of NPI, makes for grim reading.

Whilst the headline figures suggest cuts of 0.5% for English authorities following the budget this is skewed when financial changes are factored into the equation. Despite the 2% adult social care precept, the impact of withdrawing revenue support grant, making councils reliant upon council tax and business rates for the near totality of their funding, opens up new questions as to how liveability services can be sustained in the longer term. Some may face a further 20% of cuts on top of those already made.

Our research found that there is now a clear and compelling case for local government to campaign openly for liveability and public realm services. It also raised the issue of council tax increases and begs the question ‘is it now time for council tax reform’? We also recognised that many local councils have taken an entrepreneurial approach in supporting liveability services through better use of income generation strategies. Many sell street-scene services, for example to retail developments. Others have cultivate strategies for income in parks from rock concerts to cafes to renewable energy. Many are engaging with residents to plug the gaps left in funding – but this will only go so far.

If we allow our neighbourhood based services to decline we will force up ancillary demand on other services. There is a net contribution from good neighbourhoods. As we battle declining public health we can ill-afford to lose the services which anchor good neighbourhoods, support the wellbeing of citizens, reduce crime and make our local areas better places to do business.

Tackling this looming crisis in liveability services should take centre stage if Theresa May’s government is going to follow through on delivering a more inclusive economy that works for all.

Paul O’Brien is chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence, a core member of CURA and a PhD candidate at the Department of Politics and Public Policy at De Montfort University