A survey of 50 local authorities show that in the face of cuts to public spending many councils are coping better than expected with over 90 percent balancing their budgets in 2010/11 and 86 percent managing to protect front line services by focussing on back office savings and efficiency measures. A surprising 71 percent also said that the impact of cuts had been positive or neutral.
Commissioned by the RSA and LGIU, the survey found that the number of council CEOs and senior staff that are pessimistic about the impact of the cuts on the most vulnerable is small but growing.
The survey shows that until now significant minorities of councils have sought to save money by salami slicing budgets (35 percent) or by cutting discretionary services entirely (27 percent). More than half the authorities surveyed (57 percent) had begun sharing services with other local authorities to bring down costs. However, the survey indicated that cracks are beginning to show. Compared with last year:
20 percent reported growing concerns over the future of adult social care
10 percent more local authorities reported a negative impact of spending reductions
17 percent worried about internal support services and 13 percent fear for children’s services.
One in ten of respondents increasingly worried about the impact on vulnerable groups whom councils have so far largely managed to protect.
All councils reported significant spending reductions in 2011/12 ranging from 3 percent to 33 percent (with most looking to make savings of 10 percent to 15 percent). With 94 percent of cuts to public spending yet to come, the survey found there needs to be a greater capacity to mainstream the innovative new approaches that some local authorities have already undertaken. The results showed that:
Despite the government's flagship Big Society project, fewer that one in five councils are trying to reduce costs through engagement with the voluntary sector.
Just under a quarter of councils reported trying to reduce costs through contracting out and just fewer that one in five through engagement with the voluntary sector.
When it came to local decision-making and participation, the majority (87 percent) of respondents said their council had engaged local citizens in decisions about spending reduction and 67 percent of the few who had not done so, planned to in the future.
The survey marks the launch of Plugging the Gap, a series of papers from the RSA that will examine how new practical approaches on the ground can help plug the gap of reduced spending while helping ensure that the UK emerges from austerity ‘facing the right way’.
Commenting on the survey findings, RSA director of programme Adam Lent said:
"The RSA survey results provide some assurance about the way in which local authorities are managing change at a very difficult time. But it is also clear that some of the decisions they face are going to get a lot harder. Not just because there will be less to cut and fewer efficiencies to be made, but because demand for some services is likely to increase."
"The scale of these changes will alter the shape of local authorities and the services they provide. The question is whether councils can make the right decisions today, in the midst of a financial crisis, whilst maintaining their long-term, strategic perspective? What are the new approaches that will help reshape both how services are delivered and how they emerge post-recession, whilst softening the blow of spending cuts?"