The DCLG's hidden messages
by Claudia Wood
Last year, Demos mapped the impact of cuts to local authority funding on services for disabled people. The results demonstrated that when it comes to local budgets, it's not just about how much you have, but what you do with it.
We saw some incredibly innovative ways in which councils were making budgetary cuts while protecting front-line services. Necessity is the mother of invention – and inventive local authorities were trying new approaches to get more for less. Of course, not every local authority is thinking outside of the box, and some were struggling to do little more than make obvious back office cuts.
Perhaps that's why the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) issued 50 ways to save for local authorities yesterday to coincide with a new round of spending cuts. The cuts themselves speak volumes – perhaps local authorities have been too successful in dealing with the last two years of efficiency targets and have convinced Mr Pickles that more can be squeezed.
The question of whether we have reached a tipping point – the moment where less money stops being a way to drive out waste, and starts an avalanche of service closures – remains debatable. But the ‘50 ways to save’ – guidance on how local authorities might go about achieving new savings – holds more nuanced messages that need exploration.
Some ideas are pretty sensible: reducing first class travel, using video-conferencing. One would expect the fastest-thinking councils had done all this and more after the Spending Review in 2010. Other ideas are arguably short-sighted – such as ‘stop translating documents into foreign languages’. While it is true local authorities should encourage minority communities to learn English, newly arrived migrants unable to access council information before they have a chance to master English is likely to cause problems.
The idea of not collecting lifestyle information about the local population, when local authorities have been charged with tackling child poverty and improving public health also seems foolish, and suggests that the DCLG isn’t coordinating its objectives with other departments.
Yet other ideas seem to be motivated by political prejudice rather than proven effectiveness. It is impossible not to notice that there are several redundancy and pay-orientated savings ideas (including scrapping of trade union posts), suggesting the government believes that local councils are overstaffed and overpaid.
Another telling idea is the scrapping of funding to ‘sock puppets’. What the DCLG is driving at is a distinction between charities that deliver services (good), and those who campaign for a particular cause (bad).
The term ‘sock puppet’ is a reference to a report published by the IEA – ‘the UK's original free market think tank’ – which claimed that ‘state funding weakens the independence of charities, making them less inclined to criticise government policy...’ and that ‘state-funded charities ... usually campaign for causes which do not enjoy widespread support amongst the general public (e.g. foreign aid, temperance, identity politics). They typically lobby for bigger government, higher taxes, greater regulation and the creation of new agencies to oversee and enforce new laws.’
So funding campaigning charities – who are to be criticised for simultaneously being slavish supporters of the Government and bastions of lefty, pro-regulation big statists (which would put them at odds with the current government, surely?) – should end.
Apart from sounding ridiculous, this is also unworkable. The vast majority of charities have service delivery and campaigning arms, making it nigh-on impossible for local authorities to cut grants to every charity with a campaigning arm it relies on to deliver services. The fundamental nature of a charity is to help those it represents, through practical means (services) and through campaigning to fight their cause (whether disability rights or animal cruelty).
Increased outsourcing has meant both national and local government has sought to use charities to deliver services, often far more cheaply and with better results. This means, inevitably, funds paid to charities to deliver services will improve the overall financial health of the charity, enabling it to carry out campaign work.
Interestingly, the ‘50 tips’ document recommends to cut off cash to ‘campaigners’ (no.37), but also recommends ‘help the voluntary sector save you money’ (no.43) – by outsourcing more service delivery to charities. The message to charities is clear – help us deliver services more cheaply, but don’t go criticising government or campaigning on issues.
This is nothing short of the Government asking charities to collude against those they represent in return for service contracts – in some cases no doubt to stand by and watch the decimation of local support, but not fight against this or urge the government to act. It fundamentally misunderstands what charities are for (hint – it’s not to save local authorities money).
But in spite of all this, it’s not the content of the tips document I find most worrying. It is the fact that the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, suggested that local authorities should ‘do every single one of our 50 ways to save’. Even if they were all sensible, workable ideas, implementing them wholesale would be simply disastrous. Many won’t suit some local authorities’ circumstances, and there are perhaps twice as many innovative cost-saving ideas being used across the country which didn’t get a mention.
No two local authorities are the same. The essence of local innovation is to find the best strategy to reduce costs, taking advantages of local strengths and meeting local priorities.
How can the government talk of a liberating and localising settlement while dictating not only how much to cut, but how to do so? Sharing good ideas is vital, but there’s no ‘one size fits all’. Cutting costs while protecting services is an art, not a science.