Annette Hastings, University of Glasgow
As the Chancellor George Osborne asks government departments to draw up plans for cuts of 40% in the Comprehensive Spending Review due next month, and the Local Government Association warns of a knock out blow to local services and even bankrupt councils, it is worth bringing into focus the impact on service users experiencing poverty – as well as what councils can do to protect such groups and communities.
Between 2011 and 2014, researchers at the Universities of Glasgow and Heriot Watt worked with four local authority case studies across England and Scotland to analyse how local authorities have dealt with growing budget gaps of between 7% and 11% per year. Reports for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation documented the effects of local authority cuts on poorer communities.
The research pointed out how little room for manoeuvre local government has when it tries to protect poorer groups from the worst effects of budget pressures – councils spend almost two thirds of their resources on the services which poorer groups rely on. This means that to date, only a tiny per cent of the total savings which councils have made to manage austerity have come from services which tend to be used more by better off groups – services such as museums, arts and planning. But more than half of all savings have come from services which are used mostly by the poor – money advice, housing, social care and social work.
It was clear that people were now beginning to notice more significant changes to services – particularly worsening environmental services as well as reduced provision for children and young people. As one service user living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood said about her local park:
‘It used to be good. You could take the kids for picnics. Then they stopped cutting the grass and taking care of it so people couldn’t use it anymore.’
Council and voluntary sector staff reported rises in overall levels of need and that the needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged are becoming more intense. Benefit reductions and withdrawals through welfare reform were significantly amplifing problems:
“These people are coming to us at the end of their tethers … I don’t think we’ve ever had people quite as bad as we have at the moment” (Advice service provider)
Staff reductions had increased workloads for remaining staff, limited the time frontline staff could spend on public-facing work, and reduced the number of staff in operational roles (such as social work or street cleaning. Many members of staff reported feeling stressed due to overwork, job insecurity and reduced morale. The evidence suggested that some council staff were effectively ‘shock absorbers’, cushioning service-users from the worst impacts of the cuts. Importantly staff were concerned that services were suffering in various ways. They reported reduced standards with clients waiting longer, less time to help clients access services, less collaboration between colleagues, and less time for strategic thinking to improve services long term.
So given these challenges and constraints what, if anything, can local councils do to mitigate some of the impacts of austerity on those who use and need their services to the greatest degree? To help with this, the research team has produced a tool to help councils assess the impact of cuts on services and on poorer groups of service users. Called The cost of the cuts: A social impact tool for local authorities, it can help councils to produce a robust assessment of the implications of savings plans for service user groups experiencing varying levels of socio-economic deprivation. It can also help them to analyse the extent to which distinctive population and service user groups experience different levels of cumulative service change, and consider whether savings strategies should be changed as a result.
In producing the Social Impact Tool, there is no suggestion that the level of cuts facing local government should be regarded as necessary or inevitable. However, the Tool might help some councils find ways to minimising some of the harms that these cuts are bound to cause to services relied on to challenge the effects of poverty and inequality.