Man walks into a column, no.22: Cuts

As part of my day job, I have worked with a number of local councils to help them make the best decisions (or least worst, depending on your point of view) about how they use the substantially diminished resources at their disposal. In so doing one has to suspend any suspicion that the authority in question has a choice not to save lots of money, and also that in working with a smaller budget they could achieve required ends without – at least in part – cutting or cutting back on services.

I don’t personally find it difficult to take these leaps of faith: one skim of a council’s budget report shows that the reduction in government grants, when combined with loss of revenue due to the recession, leaves a yawning chasm in most council accounts. And for all the talk of ‘more for less’, there are few if any radical delivery/prevention models which have achieved proof of concept, yet alone moved into the mainstream. As for the idea that cutting ‘back office costs’ or swollen senior management salaries is a magic bullet, the figures speak for themselves (the LGA estimates that halving chief exec pay, for example, would save a whopping 0.35 per cent of the total needed). In short: cuts must be made. The only choice that councillors and managers in local authorities have is how and where.

It’s with all of the above in mind that I found myself feeling a bit sceptical – irritated, even – by the simplicity of the coverage of the news that a couple of councils have decided to charge for the use of play parks. I do not need convincing that access to high quality play facilities is vital for children’s health and happiness. But what about access to high quality social care?  A decent standard of home in which to live? What if a child has a learning disability: it’s important to provide good specialist services too, isn’t it? And then there’s the vexed question of libraries: free access to good books is pretty essential too, no? (I posted previously on whether or not access to libraries themselves is the only way to achieve this).

My point, obviously, is that children – as all of us – have many needs, most of which are jolly pressing. If you accept my argument that councils have no choice but to make cuts, and if you accept also that services for children must bear at least some of the burden (the second point doesn’t follow the first, of course) then is it really that surprising that one or two councils have swung the axe in the playground?

I’m not saying that Bexley and Wandsworth have necessarily made the right decision. It’s just that to assume prima facie that they’ve made the wrong decision is very narrow-minded. I can understand that any headline combining ‘Tory’, ‘children’, ‘cuts’ and ‘play park’ provokes a gut reaction and a suspicion that rotten old milk-snatching tactics are afoot.

But these are rotten old times, and there are a series of further questions we need to ask to assess the rightness or wrongness of any such decision. The most important include: are there measures in place to ensure poorer families are protected? Are the costs proportionate to the value of the service? Have alternatives (e.g. different models of service delivery) been properly explored?

But by far and away the most important question is: was this decision reached with local people, or without them? In my experience when conversations with service users about difficult decisions are well-handled, people respond in a mature and level-headed way. Crucially, when a final decision is reached, they’re much more likely to accept it (even if they don’t like it). The problem is that having these kind of conversations requires elected members and council managers to admit the unpalatable truth: that cuts to services will have to be made somewhere. And doing so requires real courage, which is why you see so many examples of councils trying to sneak news of spending decisions out under the radar. This almost never pays off, and much of the subsequent ire can be partly explained by perceived underhandedness. It may feel harder to be upfront, but it’s a classic example of ‘invest to save’: invest time and political capital in an honest dialogue early on, to save anger and negative coverage down the line.