How has the significant cuts to local authority funding affected front-line services? There had undoubtedly been enormous strain on services and front-line staff, with councils have argued that the limits to efficiency have been reached. Amanda Fitzgerald presents findings from a new report for the Trust for London into the most deprived communities in London.
The local government funding cuts announced at the 2010 Spending Review were described by the Local Government Association as the “toughest financial settlement in living memory” with the funding of local authorities (excluding schools, police and fire) reduced by 26 per cent (£7.6 billion) in real terms, between April 2011 and March 2015. Strikingly, cuts were lower in less deprived authorities. In our London-focused analysis, reduction in estimated spending power per capita 2010/11 to 2013/14 roughly rises with increasing deprivation.
Opposition MPs argue that these cuts hit the poorest hardest, but the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles’ message to Local Authority Chief Executives was that there is no shortage of ways in which they could make “sensible savings”, savings that would not affect front line services. Who, so far, was right?
It is clear that services in the poor neighbourhoods studied had not been spared cuts. Looking at services for the under-fives, youth and older people in one of the most deprived wards in each Brent, Camden and Redbridge, we found the worst affected were community-based services for the 65+ group. In each of the deprived neighbourhoods we looked at, an older people’s day centre had closed. Lunch club provision had been impacted as funding for voluntary sector run clubs had reduced or ceased. Older people were having to pay more, or more often, for the community-based services they accessed, such as transport, lunch clubs, optional day activities and day centres.
As a result of these changes older residents reported having less to do socially. They described themselves as bored, even “miserable”. There were reports of older people becoming more isolated. In Brent, where under-fives provision at the local children’s centre had reduced, parents reported that child behaviour had been adversely affected by the cuts. They worried about whether this would affect the children in their later transition into school.
But this is not the whole picture we took from these neighbourhoods. Children’s centre-based services for under-fives and community-based youth services for young people within the case study wards were reasonably unscathed, with the exception of the under-fives provision in Brent. One or two activity sessions from a centre’s weekly programme had been closed; a small charge had been introduced to use one youth centre, and the centre’s budget had been reduced. Service users and local service managers considered most changes relatively minor, particularly given the scale of the cuts. Since the cuts all three youth centres had had some money invested in them for from such as repainting to the addition of a new IT suite. Music to Eric Pickles’ ears perhaps?
Overall, there were some bad stories and some relatively good stories within each neighbourhood. Where accounts were more positive, there were nevertheless still damaging cuts. It was common to hear from front-line staff stories of much increased workloads and of there being considerable pressure when one of the team was on annual or sick leave. All three youth centres were depending on volunteers or voluntary and community sector partners to maintain their activity offers at a consistent level following loss, in two of those cases, of a part-time member of staff. Two of the children’s centres had become increasingly reliant on volunteers; at the time of this work they were heavily reliant on volunteers. A local service manager remarked that this did not seem a lock-tight strategy for service delivery.
About half of local service managers interviewed had doubts as to the mid-term security of their post, or of the service itself. There were some more substantial changes beyond the deprived wards studied, the closure of a youth centre in a different area of Redbridge for example. Perhaps where the change reported to date did not seem so very gloomy to service managers, that was in the context of many in local government having anticipated decimation of local services at the time of the initial announcement of large cuts in 2010.
More than this, it was clear that the voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations were finding these hard times. In each ward we found examples of VCS providers of services for under-fives, young people and older people receiving substantially less in grants income from the council than the case in 2009/10. Interviewees spoke of having to do more for what they did get. These organisations were working very hard to maintain the services they offer to local residents, all in the context of rising demand for their services. The sector has been adapting to survive: seeking to sell services, becoming suppliers of commissioned services and bringing in yet more volunteers, were amongst the strategies we found applied. And there were successes and evidence of resilience.
Does this research then reflect an initial post-cuts phase where services are making do and papering over cuts and increases in workloads, whilst underneath longer term problems around maintaining this firefighting are producing more fundamental strains? As noted in earlier analysis, Councils were pleased with the degree of protection they had been able to afford services for the most vulnerable and had adapted their ways of working so that they could deliver more efficiently. But councils have argued that the limits to efficiency have been reached. With more money being taken out of local government and councils anticipating rising demand for services, we might imagine that the underlying strains on service delivery could become more prominent, and less able to be resolved in the near future.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Alan Stanton CC BY-SA 2.0
Amanda Fitzgerald is a Research Officer at the LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion. She is working on the Centre’s Social Policy in a Cold Climate programme, her research focusing on the changing geographies of social policy outcomes and poverty.