Monday, 21 June 2010

Downloading responsibility

One of my former managers at social services had a legendary habit of pacing the office after hours to check people had correctly shut down their PCs and turned off their monitors. The rationale for this was not an environmental one, but a cost driven one. As our manager reminded us we were all responsible on a individual micro-level for the councils budget. Unsurprisingly the manager in question was soon promoted. Later they returned to the office to explain why we would need to move from our modern(ish) air-conditioned, open plan, town centre office to a rabbit warren like, non air-conditioned - and boy was it hot in the summer, older building on the edge of town cut off from civilisation by both a motorway and railway; an area so remote Tesco still hasn't even bothered opening a convenience store. The building was however, much cheaper being unoccupied for around two years after its previous occupiers the housing association who controlled the surrounding estate moved to plush new purpose built accommodation. Two years on a further accommodation rationalisation drive saw more staff quitting their town centre locations and squeezed into our building. Some of our grumbles may seem churlish (lack of cycling facilities, lack of toilets, temperature), but staff reliant on public transport faced nightmare journeys, we became inaccessible to service users, no longer being centrally located made journeys for home visits longer and the lack of an open plan environment affected team-dynamics with literal walls solidifying into metaphorical barriers.

In short this story shows austerity is nothing new to local government it has been the norm, in my experience, for years. It therefore seems hard to see just how much more local government can drive down costs without performance being seriously compromised and by this I mean increased risks. This is important as local government will be the arena where cuts are most keenly felt. Take this post on the excellent Fighting Monsters Blog. The example given is of ILF payments being affected. These are, very sketchily put, where central government assists with funding for people under 65 living in the community, but who have needs above the threshold for residential care. By scaling this back more pressure is put on local authorities. I make a similar point in an earlier post on the resilience of public spending; the bottom-line is that the needs will still need to be met; the state being unable to walk away from instances of need which would otherwise go unmet. In this case it therefore means funding must be diverted from elsewhere by the local authority. In other words the ultimate responsibility for making the required cut is downloaded from central government to the local authority. The luxury for central government is it can then distance itself from making real, tangible cuts and also importantly absolve itself of responsibility when services do break down. Add to this the prospect of a council tax freeze and Local Government is in a very. very tight spot indeed.

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