The era of austere times is upon us in Local Government. With funding settlements from central government continually constrained, Ealing Council faces the dual challenge of attempting to meet ever increasing demand for our services, whilst trying to do so with ever diminishing resources.From 2010 through to 2018, the Council will have had to remove £183m worth of expenditure from its budget. During the life of the last administration, £87m of savings were delivered, with an even more daunting figure of £96m left to achieve by the conclusion of the current administration.
In the face of such a challenge, the simple but tough solution would be to manage the slow decline of public services, cutting to the bone or ceasing completely many of the services our residents have come to know and expect. The more complex, but ultimately better answer to that challenge is to ask more fundamental questions of how and why we deliver services in the ways that we do, and try and make them better for our residents, achieving better results.
Achieving ‘value for money’, is not simply about delivering services at the lowest possible cost, but using our resources wisely to get better outcomes for our residents.
Through better working relationships with other local authorities, or through the increased cooperation with the voluntary and community sector, many of the challenges we collectively face can be faced together. Whether cooperating on joint priorities, joining together to unleash the power of collective purchasing and commissioning, or winning greater power from devolution, our future is as tied to our neighbours as never before.
Equally, as pressures on Council services continue to increase whilst our funding does not, we will need to examine how we curb demand for our services if we cannot increase supply. As many of the Demand Management projects have so far demonstrated, much of this can be achieved by step changes in behaviour.
Financially this is risky. Much of the financial savings and service reform we will need to make if we are to set healthy budgets require tricky behavioural changes on the part of the Council and of our residents.
This need not be belligerently telling people to behave as we would like them. More often than not, projects have demonstrated that when we as an authority are willing to ‘go with the flow’ with our residents, we could achieve a happier and more cost efficient outcome.
Like all Councils across the country, to do this we will need to secure a much healthier relationship with our residents. One in which moves beyond the traditional patriarchal structure whereby we deliver the services we believe our residents should have, toward a partnership whereby residents are able to work with us to shape services fit for the future.As Councillors, it will be incumbent upon us to be honest with our residents. Whilst we must in Committee Rooms and the Council Chamber face the harsh financial reality of setting a legal budget, we should guard against the tendency to expedite what we know cannot be expedited or make promises on what we know cannot be reasonably be delivered.
With stronger risk management and political commitment, the financial challenges we face over the forthcoming years can be met, whilst at the same time securing a better deal for our residents.