Self-financing may provide council housing with a
secure basis for long-term financial planning, but the housing
departments that manage it are not immune from the financial storms
affecting other council services. English councils have cut £5
billion and shed 230,000 jobs since 2010.
The Autumn Statement made it clear that the pressure will not
ease. Councils have been exempted in 2013 from the additional 1 per
cent cut announced for government departments in the, probably
vain, hope that they will freeze council tax for another year. But
they will feel the full force of a 2 per cent cut in 2014.
Secretary of State Eric Pickles has been criticised for failing to
acknowledge the gravity of the challenge, pursuing his crusade to
restore weekly bin collections and wittering on about chief
executives' pay while councils are forced to put discretionary
services to the sword.
In truth there is a little more to his argument than that. In a recent interview in House
Magazine, he picked out better procurement and more joint
working as the two keys to improve efficiency and make the cuts
while saving services; "a lot of the smaller districts are just
going to have to work together", he argues, identifying payroll,
benefits, housing and free school meals as particular opportunities
for joint work, but going on to mention planning, and applaud the
plans of Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith
& Fulham for a much more radical merger, bringing all three
councils under a single chief executive.
Who could possibly object? "The people who tend to be against this
are generally officials, because they see themselves losing jobs",
said Pickles. A disgruntled official might also note that the one
group whose jobs are unaffected by this process are the
He might also think that in the search for savings on the scale
now required it is illogical to rule out streamlining arrangements
for political governance by reducing the number of members,
voluntary merger of councils or reorganisation, as recommended by
Michael Heseltine. But wholesale reorganisation is ruled out,
according to Pickles, because it is too disruptive.
In this interview, Pickles only mentions opportunities for
councils to work jointly with other councils. But the real
potential for joint working to deliver better services and greater
efficiency, however, comes with joint working in a locality across
the whole public sector, as DCLG's own work on Community Budgets
That is because there are not just efficiencies of scale to be
realised but real opportunities to reduce overlap and duplication
between the work of local government, police, the NHS and so
There is good evidence that, given the chance, councils could lead
the local restructuring of public services - in different ways to
suit different local circumstances - to improve effectiveness and
squeeze out much more efficiency. The biggest obstacle here is the
silo culture which infects central government departments as much
as the public services they sponsor.
In his long-awaited but somewhat anodyne review of the
Government's progress on decentralisation, Cities Minister Greg
Clark, now Financial Secretary to the Treasury, concluded that it
is generally "doing well". He gave most departments (even DWP)
three stars out of a potential five, for the progress they have
made on decentralising power and services.
DCLG was awarded four stars, signalling "ambitious
decentralisation programme underway - further action required on
some issues". But looking more carefully at the criteria used to
evaluate Departmental progress, it is clear that much more emphasis
is devoted to how much the centre has let go than to what benefits
have been felt in localities.
Thus elected Police Commissioners, Academies and NHS
reorganisation are all cited as positive evidence of
decentralisation, without there being any acknowledgement or
evaluation of what these very different initiatives add up to in a
locality, whether they make it easier or harder to achieve
coordinated local action towards shared objectives.
To the extent that Clark's report conveys any vision of the future
it is of a ratatouille of public services chopped into small pieces
of various sizes and shapes, left to float free in a sauce of local