Austerity and the Council - what's it all about? Estella Tincknell writes

January 11 2018
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We probably all feel we hear a lot about ‘austerity ‘ and its impact on local government budgets, but the reality can be hard to explain. Recently, Professor Robin Hambleton of Bristol University created a chart to show its true impact here in Bristol.

‘Austerity’ and the council – what’s it all about?

We probably all feel we hear a lot about ‘austerity ‘ and its impact on local government budgets, but the reality can be hard to explain. Recently, Professor Robin Hambleton of Bristol University created a chart to show its true impact here in Bristol. Crucially, the majority of Bristol City Council’s and every other local authority’s revenue funds (i.e. the funds available to spend on social care, highways, parks and libraries, youth services and so forth) comes not from council tax but from
central government. And it is this funding stream which is disappearing.

In 2010, the government set out to radically reduce central government support to local councils to zero over the following decade. In Bristol that has meant a reduction of nearly 80% to the revenue grant received by the council to spend on services since 2010. The intention is that by 2020 there will be no central government funding for councils; all the money we spend must come from council tax. Any organisation faced with an 80% reduction in their budget would find it extremely difficult to
sustain ‘business as usual’.

We will have gone from a grant of £201million in 2010/11 to one of £45 million in 2019/20. Of course, that is still a lot of money. However, the way it is spent is equally
important. People are often surprised when I tell them that the majority of council revenue funds are spent not on highways or other big ‘visible’ works but on adult and child social care. Nearly 60% of the council’s budget is committed to these services, leaving just 40% for everything else. Why is so much money committed to one part of the council’s services? This is for complex reasons.

First, we have had a significant rise in people living into a ripe old age in the UK since the 1950s. This is, of course, a good thing, but it can mean greater reliance on council services. For example, it is not unusual now for us all to expect to continue to live fairly independently well into our 80s or 90s with support from visiting care workers or, if we can’t manage so well, with funded care in a specialist home. This is provided by the city council. Second, the kind of safeguarding we expect to be offered to the most vulnerable, especially children, older people and disabled people, and which we would all hope to be available to our nearest and dearest, is much more rigorous now than it was even twenty years ago. National governments quite rightly insist that local councils protect vulnerable children and adults and offer high standards of care. This kind of support is also a ‘statutory duty’; in other words, councils are legally obliged to provide it. But this costs a lot of money to do properly.
And, with the reduction in the national revenue grant, Bristol City Council, like many other local authorities, is struggling to pay for these services as well as all the others we expect it to provide.

With 2020 looming, by which time the council will finally lose the government grant, the situation has become a serious challenge. It is Hobson’s Choice. Given that the city council (quite rightly) must provide its statutory care services, it is looking to make savings elsewhere. Unfortunately, the only options are to reduce spending across the board or to raise council tax to make up for the shortfall. Given that ‘austerity’ is affecting so many other aspects of people’s lives, from pensions and benefits to education (now no longer a mainly locally funded service), the prospect of asking people to pay more council tax is contentious. The people of Bristol (and the UK) will see an increasingly shrinking council with much more limited powers to provide the kinds of services we took for granted in the past. This will begin to be really felt in the next couple of years when some of those services such as libraries, parks and youth support will become reliant on volunteers, or will be run in very different ways by different providers. This is how austerity will change the face of Bristol City Council, and will impact on all  our lives.