In March this year, the National Audit Office (NAO) reported that at least 25 councils are facing substantial financial pressure because of reduced income and high demand for services as a result of the pandemic.1 In the wake of more than a decade of swingeing cuts to budgets, council officers have an unenviable task: maintaining standards on smaller revenues, while reassuring residents that essential local services will continue to be delivered to expected standards.
In a game of multiple stakeholders, expert management and communication is vital. Council executives face, rightly, political pressure from local councillors with democratic mandates from their communities. But, in times of financial restraint, they must also make their case to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). If, as many inevitably will, they need to ask for an additional funding arrangement from MHCLG, they face inspectors and additional budget rationalisation.
More and more, council officers are coming to terms with the realisation they will have to do less with less. Changes to local services almost certainly create disruption and always generate responses from residents – councillors themselves are used to explaining, at least during election periods, their actions to voters, but council executives are now doing the same, as their prominent role in formulating budgets and delivering services comes under scrutiny.
Local politicians are keenly aware that dependable services, such as bin collections, ultimately decide local elections: residents have priorities, and council officers need to pay more than lip service to reassuring locals they are at the core of council decision-making.
We are at the threshold of several years of change programs and local government transformation. Pretending otherwise, or that funding will remain the same after the pandemic, is unrealistic. Urban and town councils will no longer be able to count on the same level of business rates as companies cut office space in centres and working from home becomes the norm. Footfall in businesses areas that have delivered reliable revenues to councils in the past will take some time to return to pre-pandemic levels.
This message needs to be communicated to residents, and sooner rather than later. Clearly articulating the financial pressures that a council is under may save a lot of woe in the future. Having a plan in place, with reassuring, but clear and accurate messages that explain adequately what will happen to services is required and should be front of mind when officers are planning a change budget.
Early consultations on spending priorities above the delivery of essential services is vital: a feeling of transparency and inclusivity, and therefore perhaps a sense of ownership of council projects, is best. Prevention is better than cure.
If financial pressures are sustained, and deeper cuts need to be made, these need to be adequately and clearly explained to residents. Within local government law, there are different interpretations of even the most basic concepts such as the “essential services” a council must deliver.
Any impact of cuts on services needs to be clearly set out: “we will maintain bin collections” will not be sufficient long term. Explain how often, and why. “Library services will continue” is parking the problem: are you closing libraries, and how many? Residents can smell a rat when they see it. They have themselves more likely than not faced the need to rationalise their own household budgets. They will understand the need for cuts, so long as the council doesn’t seem to be trying to pull the wool over their eyes.
Clarity, transparency, and a clear focus on residents’ priorities is key to communicate any programme of change in local government. Early communication, and early consultation, is vital and helps mitigate any potential damage in resident relations later.
Communications are not a secondary consideration for councils. A strategic, long-term plan that explains to and engages with residents is a requirement to maintain community cohesion. We are facing another period of potentially transformative change in local government: further years of councils doing less with less. Residents understand this, but they expect, and rightly, clarity and reassurance from the council about how that will impact them, their family and their community. Tell them that, and they might just trust you.
This article was first published in the Municipal Journal online on 16 August 2021.