The brutality of spending cuts is leaving councils with little room for manoeuvre – and outsourcing is often no longer an option
It was, looking back, ironic that the Tory party conference took place this year in Birmingham. Even Eric Pickles, a man not prone to worrying much about symbolism, might appreciate the poignancy of his address to members of the Local Government Association at a fringe event taking place just a few steps away from the striking facades of the modern building that will become Birmingham's new central library.
Those councillors who listened, mostly politely, to Pickles are now deep into the process of making brutal, unprecedented cuts. The figures are staggering: £600m must be taken out of Birmingham city council's budget alone by 2017. As historian and Labour MP Tristram Hunt pointed out, the cuts put at grave risk the "heroic, civilising function of local government". Birmingham's new library isn't even complete, but the contrast could not be clearer between what it stands for – this "heroic, civilising function" – and the hammer blows of cuts now raining down on local services.
Birmingham leader, Sir Albert Bore, called it the "end of local government as we know it". Barnsley councillor Tim Cheetham agrees. He believes councils are planning their own demise. By 2019, says Cheetham, adult social care costs going inexorably up will meet reducing council budgets coming inexorably down. "From that point on councils will be doing nothing else. There will no longer be a local authority," he predicts.
This may sound over-dramatic, but local authorities really do have very little room for manoeuvre. Simply cutting existing services will no longer do. A guide to commissioning services published by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (Solace) acknowledges this in the guide's title: "When the salami's gone".
What else will work? Privatisation and outsourcing, the mantra of rightwing governments, no longer hold much appeal. Joint ventures, once seen as combining the best of public and private approaches, are running into trouble, with Cornwall county council's controversial £300m strategic partnership model, which proposed the creation of a huge joint venture involving the council, local NHS organisations and a major private sector outsourcing firm, rolling into the long grass. It is not possible to outsource services that no longer exist. Stephen Hughes, the chief executive of Birmingham, has said that traditional outsourcing "won't cut the mustard".Councils are desperate to manage and reduce demand for services. Advocates of early intervention claim good early-years support will reduce later, more costly spending on, say, prisons. But early intervention alone won't help councils reduce demand for their social services. Louise Morpeth, a senior researcher at the Dartington Social Research Unit, says that if a council has 100 foster care places and puts in lots of early intervention services, that could prevent 100 children from taking up those places. But because there is always more demand than supply, those places will still be filled. The only way to change that is to cut the number of places.
Giving this year's Sandy Bruce-Lockhart memorial lecture, former Tory leader Lord Howard said "local government has entered a new and exciting phase," and he exhorted local leaders to become "community champions".In Barnsley, people are noticing the longer grass – the bins emptied less often, says Cheetham. They will be noticing a lot more than that soon. Next year, perhaps the Conservatives should avoid Birmingham and go back to the seaside. But wherever they go, they will not be able to avoid the impact of cuts on local government.
with courtesy of the Guardian