Yinnon Ezra was a senior council officer, serving as Director of Culture, Communities and Rural Affairs for Hampshire County Council, pioneering the Discovery Centre concept, before retiring and taking on a number of senior posts with arts charities. He offers a personal view on the crisis engulfing local authorities with many teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. He proposes radical changes to the public sector.

“Regretfully the council has decided to withdraw their financial support which means that our services to the housebound may cease next year” – said the Chairman of a voluntary organisation when he met staff for the seasonal Christmas coffee morning. Volunteers do the “dropping in” but it’s all organised by a couple of part-time staff who will have to leave after April. The future is uncertain. Cutting the voluntary sector is counter intuitive, it is often the last line of defence as volunteers doing what they do relieves the hard-pressed public service. The choice so many councils are making is to focus on their “statutory obligations”. This is the standard finance led approach to get a balanced budget without fully considering the consequences for those “statutory” services which will have to do a great deal more because the cheaper volunteer “staffed” organisations are no longer. At times of austerity, it is the voluntary sector that should see its investment increased not reduced. The other depressing thing is that the investment in the wonderful things that make an area worth living in - its environment and cultural life is also often seen as an “extra”.

Councils are funded by a combination of grants from central government and the council tax with a percentage of the business rates being used for schemes promoted by local businesses. Government has reduced its core support grant by nearly 50 per cent. Funding for schools is passported directly with restrictions placed on the level of council tax increases. The latter is calculated on the value of domestic property which has remained unchanged excluding price inflation for years. This needs urgent review and change.       

Many councils have reduced staffing and re-structured. One feels for the staff and councillors who must become really weary with the endless need to make cuts. Some councils have set up arm’s length trusts to manage and run many of their “non-statutory” services – others have joined together their “support services” – several partnerships exist between the NHS and social care departments in local authorities – the sharing of publicly owned buildings – computer systems – chief executives – BUT much more can be done with public sector organisations coming together. Huge savings could be made by bringing together the property portfolios of the NHS, Government departments e.g. the Ministry of Defence, Department of Employment, local councils, universities and colleges, school sites to name a few. They don’t all fit neatly together but some could? The pressure on the NHS and councils is huge and growing is it not time for health and social care to come together in a formal structured way? Inevitably those responsible for various parts of the public sector become protective and this emotion is all too human. But a planned and gradual integration with greater sharing will secure jobs and save cash. So often the cliff edge approaches with speed and short-term decisions inevitably have to be made kicking into the long grass initiatives that slowly transform relationships delivering cash for re-investment.

Reenforced by the Chancellor's recent Autumn Statement “Even more Austerity” will hit local government once again. This together with the fact that we are all getting older and living longer will probable drive even more councils into bankruptcy. With this in mind, it is time for a rethink about how councils are organised particularly in areas with both county and district layers?  Local government has had many a full blown divisive “Review of Local Government” with a Commission appointed by Government taking evidence and spending years coming to a conclusion. Viewing this from the customer end, it is often difficult to navigate round the responsibilities of the different levels of local government. Areas will also have town and parish councils delivering local services. Some have as many as 13 district organisations with its county council. All have their own offices, administrations, planning functions and so on. Perhaps with the need to save money and give the council tax payer a “one stop” service is it time to evolve into unitary local government - with the right structure to ensure local accountability, representation and heritage?