Craig Dearden-Phillips: Ostrich, salami-slicer, aggregator - which of these will your council be?

The best authorities will bring the resources of the three sectors together, says our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

So it's official now: austerity is going to go on and on - until at least 2020, according to the Prime Minister. Those of us working closely with the various branches of government already know that this is a game-changer. Five years of austerity kept the current business model for government intact - just. Ten years and it blows apart.

The struggle I see going on everywhere - even in parts of the state that are supposedly ahead of the curve, like local government - is to envision what this new way of doing business looks like. Whether a council is red, blue or orange, the challenges look the same: how do we maintain a politically acceptable level of service without imposing politically unacceptable taxes on local people? All this comes at the same time as mounting social care costs and the effects of welfare cuts, which are felt first at local level.

Responses fall into three camps. One group of councils I call the ostriches. They know there is a problem, it frightens them, but it's too big and complex for them to deal with. Instead, these authorities blame the government and lobby, forlornly, for a heartier slice of a cake that was long ago eaten. The endgame for these authorities could well be bankruptcy and a near-irrecoverable economic position of the type seen in Detroit, where large parts of the city have been abandoned.

A second group is the salami-slicers. These authorities take a mix of short and long-term measures. Sometimes these are sensible, but often they are not. Indeed, it is in salami-slicing authorities that we have seen the most unfair cuts to voluntary sector budgets. These cuts starve the supply lines for future protection against the effects of austerity. Services such as Citizens Advice perform a massive service in keeping problems from councils' doors. Burning their budgets ahead of the biggest welfare reforms in 50 years is crazy, as the salami-slicers will find to their cost.

The final group of councils is the aggregators. They see the limitations of an incremental approach. What they also understand is that they must dramatically reposition themselves from being volume service providers to being aggregators of local resources. In practice, this means that the main role of councils is to knit together public and private money and community endeavour in ways that recreate the cake that previously consisted of public money.

Few councils that I deal with have a plan for how to erase the writing on the wall. Ideas are often thin on the ground. By 2022, we will have adapted, for better or worse, to austerity. Our public realm will be about as good, a bit worse or a lot worse than it is today - we just don't know. But there is one thing of which we can we sure - it will be different, and the place of the third sector within it will be substantially changed. The nature of that change is, in part at least, in our own hands.

Contact Craig, who writes in a personal capacity, at www.stepping-out.biz

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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