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Local Authorities and Community in the Age of Austerity

February 7, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the consequences of Labour’s huge deficit is the need to make savings on a range of fronts, including in local authority expenditure. This has consequently created many challenges for local voluntary and charitable groups, who have often enjoyed extraordinary levels of government grant support over the last few years. There are however still things that local authorities can do, even at this late hour, to manage the transition.

The first is to focus not just on the 10 percent of their budget relating to voluntary sector grants but also look at the 90 percent of expenditure on services they procure. One charity I have come across recently, Aspire Community Works, represents just the kind of organisation councils ought to be thinking of and inviting some of their grantees to potentially emulate. The charity seeks to employ people resident in housing associations or council estates to provide services to help maintain and develop those estates competitively versus other private providers and uses its profits to help seed other residents to set up local small businesses. It is not looking to local government for grant support but bidding for small local contracts. By looking at such opportunities, councils could open up billions for voluntary organisations, as well as socially responsible firms and employee owned public sector mutuals.

The second action local authorities can take is to have a serious look at their core costs – not just the salaries of middle management and their CEOs but also what hours they do. One of the major surprises of the recession in the private sector has been how low unemployment has been given the severity of the downturn. One reason is because many firms invited staff to go part time. Middle and senior staff in local authorities can be invited to go to three or for days a week, and even be connected to opportunities whether to be self-employed, run and franchise business, or get involved in their local community, alongside working part-time. This would have the additional benefit of bringing in expertise from other worlds and drawing the local public sector and other sectors closer, as well as potentially creating jobs in externally run organisations which local authority staff become involved with or start up.

The third opportunity lies in partnerships. In an era lasting at least two years in which local authorities will find it harder to fund local voluntary action, now is the time to work with local and national businesses (perhaps linking in with business connectors), and philanthropy and social investment not only to help the local VCS transition but also to innovate and become more resilient long term with a more diversified set of funding streams. Match funds in particular, matching not just money but time, could be a powerful tool in this regard. Community Organisers could also be an ally in building such bridges.

Given the difficulties of transition in this period you might be surprised to hear that I recently attended last Friday a really encouraging event called Local Society attended by Chief Executives and other representatives from a cross section of councils from across the land and was struck by how people were pragmatically moving forward and open to many of the ideas and opportunities offered by the community itself, despite the challenges presented by austerity. There was a recognition that we have to get on with it and make the best of a tough situation, and I took away five things that I said I would bring back to colleagues in government: the need for culture change inside and outside local government (both between ministers and local bodies, as well as between the latter and citizens); the need to build capacity in voluntary sector to rise to the procurement opportunities (including via consortia) as well as internally (to manage risk and rules in a more balanced fashion) as well as in citizens own lives (stories were told of parents teaching their kids not to pick litter because that was the “council’s job”); recognising there will be unevenness (ensuring deprived areas do not fall behind, different models will originate in different authorities some focussed on outsourcing, others on mutualism, between departments); the powerful role councillors can play as community leaders and facilitators and in holding unelected groups to account; the need for transparency mechanisms to catch up whether through intelligent use of web transparency, mechanisms akin to chapter 11 to deal with failures quickly with authorities as providers of last resort able to quickie re-tender, and through stronger democracy locally (Mayors, local referenda, stronger parishes).

All in all it was clear that many authorities will benefit from the greater freedoms they will have and that many will be striving to grow community despite the challenges that lie ahead, and for that I can only salute and applaud them.

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