I doubt that there are many councillors who are unaware of the scale of the country’s financial difficulties. Yet whatever your prescription for resuscitating the British economy, politicians of all parties agree that reducing the deficit is a crucial piece in the puzzle.
Regardless of your views on the Government’s strategy, it is clear that reductions in council budgets are a reality. The challenge for councillors is to best adjust to the new climate and mitigate the impact on the services that people care about most.
I do not believe that the way forward is to abandon all council services, leaving local government as a sole provider of social care. Rather, local government should be taking the lead in innovative ways of thinking – taking bold steps to cut waste, not just services.
Liberal Democrats on Sheffield City Council have led sustained campaigns to protect front-line services and we have set out clear and fair options for doing so. Yet instead, Sheffield’s Labour-controlled Cabinet have earmarked £2.2 million for plush refurbishments of Town Hall meeting rooms and committed more than £500,000 to fund trade union officials. Clearly, the idea of tightening your own belt first has fallen on deaf ears at the Town Hall.
Yet, cutting down on this waste alone is not enough – if we’re serious about protecting front-line services, we need more radical approaches to the Council’s back office functions. Examples are all around us: Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster, and Hammersmith & Fulham Councils share their management, delivering a saving of £40m a year. Likewise, councils in North East Derbyshire and Bolsover share senior executives. Suggestions have also been made for a single emergency service across the region. Ideas like these, which pool resources and minimise duplication, are exactly the kind of action that councils needs to take.
We should also not forget that, as well as the pitfalls, there are new opportunities that the Government is offering to councils across the country. For example, this month Sheffield City Council agreed a radical approach to apprenticeships and skills, backed by £25 million of new Government funding. This scheme forms part of the Government’s City Deal with Sheffield, a bold plan which puts local government in the driving seat for economic growth.
Furthermore, government reforms, such as Tax Increment Financing and the retention of business rate growth, means council services like bin collections and grass-cutting will directly benefit from the growth we generate in our region.
This is the final piece in the puzzle. With the keys to the local economy in our hands, councillors can help to ensure funds are generated that will support front-line council services. The Government is already investing hundreds of millions inSheffield’s infrastructure. Now, the Council needs to ensure it uses the powers it has been given to create a business-friendly environment, where the local economy can thrive.
This is not to deny that councils may look very different five years from now; however, councillors must grasp the opportunities as well as the challenges. Cutting down on unnecessary spending is only the start of this process. We need strong local leaders who will deliver radical ideas both for our tightening our belts and for delivering the growth and jobs that we need.
Currently, Labour leaders in Sheffield seem to be struggling to get over the first hurdle, let alone the latter two.
* Cllr Shaffaq Mohammed is Leader of the Lib Dem Group on Sheffield City Council