One of the intellectual foundations of the Coalition and the new liberal-conservatism is the concept of the “Big Society” which, it should be remembered, isn’t just about a bigger society but also smaller Government.
At its heart, therefore, is a redefinition of the relationship between the individual and the State, whether it be in terms of the central Government or the local Council. I attended a seminar this afternoon which covered the latter and it was fascinating to listen to representatives of local Government from both County and District Councils considering these issues. All were ambitious that the outcome of the spending review in October would be a huge factor going ahead. Many are bracing for bad news with cuts of 25-40% in the offing.
The likelihood of such drastic cuts is triggering a fundamental re-appraisal of the relationship between Councils and their customers. Some Authorities are already looking at services like Adult Education and Youth and trying to see if they might be able to completely end this provision. Others are looking hard at in-house activities and processes for savings. There is reluctance to look at wide-scale externalisation because the experience has not been uniformly positive. Indeed, some have in-sourced activities having discovered it to be a cheaper option.
Thinking along the lines of collaborative working isn’t well developed in some areas but more so in others. Some of the more radical thinking looked at taking functions currently scattered in two-tier environments and consolidating them. In effect, we could be seeing the evolution of unitary authorities by function if not administration.
Unfortunately, the general view was bleak and almost all Authorities were convinced that redundancies would be inevitable though a few hoped the numbers would be lower than feared. The fear was that valuable knowledge and experience would be lost while one representative from a County Council expressed the view to me that his senior officers and Members were “in a state of denial” and feared a panic slash-and-burn round of job losses in the New Year.
Another said to me privately during coffee that the mood in his Authority was “like the phoney war of 1939-40. They have no idea what is coming over the horizon towards them”.
What concerned me most listening to these experienced Officers was the lack of time for planning. The publication of spending details in October or November leaves little or no time for constructive thought or planning. Individual Councils will be left to respond in isolation as the tidal wave of austerity hits.
It won’t be pleasant…