There is no doubt that austerity as either implemented by the Coalition Government (and then sadly pushed far, far harder by the present Tory Government) or indeed as outlined by Alistair Darling (his austerity would probably have been harsher than the Coalition’s some commentators say) on behalf of the Labour Party prior to the 2010 General election has had a huge impact on the ability of councils to deliver services.
But in fact there is a funding crisis that goes back much further than the financial crash of 2007 that has impacted on local authorities. That funding crisis is back in the headlines now but I recall it rearing its head almost every year that I was Sefton Borough Councillor during the budget setting process. In fact it was twofold i.e. children in care and care for the elderly.
Year on year senior council officers would present the need for extra money to be put into these two care budgets, often the amounts asked for, year in year out, would be have six 000,000’s behind them.
My point is that the elderly and children in care budgets have been eating further and further into council budgets for many, many years so austerity as far as local authorities are concerned did not start with the great financial crash but maybe 10 to 15 years prior to that.
And what made me think of this matter which must have been impacting on every local authority with responsibility for elderly/child care? Well two things really. The elderly care crisis is hitting the headlines yet again because politicians refuse to address it properly and have failed to do so for a least the last 20 years. And the other very local issue that made me think about it is the demise of public toilets and in particular the former award winning ones in Maghull.
Public toilets have been in decline for a long time and the Maghull ones are an interesting and sad example not least because Sefton Council would once boast about them being award winners (Public Loo of the Year or some such award) back in the 1980’s. But since those days the Council’s focus, you could say its priority, has been slowly but surely moved towards funding the elderly and children in care.
What’s happened has been a creeping process whereby the amount of money each local authority has to spend on other services has got smaller and smaller as the budgets for elderly and children in care have got bigger. And this well before the consequences of austerity and the financial crash hit them via government grant cuts.
The thrust of government policy has in effect been to force local authorities to spend their money in these two key social care areas and on little else. Yes there’s no doubt that the austerity that followed the financial crash sped up this process beyond what anyone could have conceived but it had been a trend for a long time, one which was pursued by governments of all colours.
In reality local authorities (this does not include Town and Parish Councils – they don’t get an government grants) are now focused on delivering statutory services and have almost no money to deliver things that local people may want. Public toilets, for example, are a non-statutory service hence their demise across the UK.
Personally, I have thought that the funding of local authorities has been inappropriate for many years because they are in reality delivering two very different things i.e. local often non-statutory services for their communities and statutory services where they are in effect simply an agent delivering governmental/national services. The two got muddled up in the times of plenty and it did not seem to matter. However, in times of scarce money it is the local mainly non-statutory services that have been lost as the money has gone to prop up the statutory ones.
Sadly, it is more complex than that even because if you take the example of libraries they are a statutory service i.e. local authorities have to provide them. But the level to which they are provided is a different matter so Sefton Council was able to reduce it’s libraries from 13 to 6 without falling foul of the law not so long ago.
However you look at it local authorities are the fall-guys for austerity because governments of all colours over the past 20+ years have not funded statutory services, particularly adult/elderly social care, properly.