Opinion: Tough Choices – Yes, but local politicians must grasp opportunities as well as challenges

Sheffield Town HallI 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

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This entry was posted in Local government and Op-eds.


  • mike cobley 6th Nov '12 - 1:07pm

    In other words you can have all the local services and community facilities you like, the most wonderful resources and designs imaginable – but only if some private sector corporation can figure out how to make easy money out of it. Otherwise, you ordinary folk will just have to live with the tough choices, and pitch your quality of life expectations down around the post-soviet, east european level.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Nov '12 - 1:23pm

    Rather, local government should be taking the lead in innovative ways of thinking – taking bold steps to cut waste, not just services.

    Yes, but this has been said year in, year out, for as long as I can remember. No-one is actually going to say “It’s good for councils to waste money and they shouldn’t try to innovate”, are they? Is it REALLY the case that despite councils having been under budget pressures for years and years, there are substantial amounts of “waste” that can easily be cut? Or does this actually come down to simplistic removal of support mechanism which seem to be of little use until one finds once they’ve gone other things crumble?

    When I was a councillor, the “bold step” we were being urged to take was to use PFI. It was suggested that because this involved using private companies it would bring in this magic fairy dust called “private sector know-how”, which you could just sprinkle on things to make them more efficient. I remember looking through this stuff, and once when had got through all the verbiage, which seemed to be a job creation scheme for lawyers, accountants and bureaucrats, it amounted to something like being given a mortgage in return for agreeing to use a particular cleaning company for the house one was buying for the next twenty five years. That seemed to me to be dubious – how would I know even in five years time whether I still thought that cleaning company was any good, and how would I feel about being stuck with them for twenty years more? But the lawyers, accountants and bureaucrats assured me it was all fine, they had (at the council’s expense) drawn up contracts which would ensure things would never go wrong. The Blairites who ran the council told me that by being sceptical about PFI I was turning down money being offered to the council, so how could I look my constituents in the face and say they wouldn’t have the services this money was to be used for because Cllr Huntbach was some old-style socialist dinosaur who couldn’t see how bringing in the private sector was the way forward?

    Now I only wish I had been more loud in my protests, seeing how the long term costs of PFI have mounted up so much.

    Efficiency savings by pooling services sound good, but it’s the opposite of what we used to be told was how to be more efficient – decentralise so that the people running things were in close touch with what they were running and so could make more informed decisions, and therefore save the waste caused by remote bureaucrats making mistakes because they had no idea what it was like on the ground where they were making the decisions about.

    A “single emergency service across the region” perhaps illustrates the problem, because it’s what we have with police now, at least in London where I live. It’s impossible to get through to your local police station and speak to someone who knows the area. If you phone 999 or the contact number given, you get through to some central office where the person you speak to has NO IDEA of the place you are trying to tell them about. So their time and yours is wasted as you try to explain to them just exactly what road you mean, where it is you saw whatever it is you are trying to report – while the criminals you saw are busily running away,

  • John Carlisle 7th Nov '12 - 11:17am

    I sympathise with Matthew’s feelings about “waste” nad his obvious frustration. But, I don’t think that is what Shaffaq means. It is not about outsourcing or merging or pooling. What he is saying is, beginning with understanding the user’s needs, we need to check that the service that delivers to those needs do so on time and in full. The trouble is that we always fix before we understand.
    There is huge waste in all normal services because we use the wrong delivery model, eg. front office/back office, thereby separating the person who DOES know how to fix the problem from the person with the problem. Or we adopt the old “economy of scale” argument that does not even work in industry. Efficiency means driving out any activity that does not help the delivery process to run smoothly. Some examples: using this approach halved costs of stroke care in Plymouth, dented crime figures in a tough sector of Wolverhampton, better development at lower cost in Rugby planning office, improved food safety in Great Yarmouth, slashed red tape and wasted effort at Staffordshire Fire and Rescue, halved advice costs in Nottingham, lives of vulnerable and elderly in Somerset radically improved and the number of missing persons reports in Cheshire reduced by 75 per cent. (Simon Caulkin, 2012)
    Note the last point; a reduction of 75%. 75%! Not by PFI, not by outsourcing; simply by engaging the knowledge of the workers in that system in the improvement of it. Shaffaq has made a most important point. Don’t knock it just because you may have been the victim of the wrong method.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Nov '12 - 12:10pm

    John Carlisle

    There is huge waste in all normal services because we use the wrong delivery model, eg. front office/back office, thereby separating the person who DOES know how to fix the problem from the person with the problem.

    Er yes, not only do I agree with that, but I thought it was what I was saying. But I didn’t read Shaffaq as saying that.

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