Rebuilding Local Government after Austerity – musings for Open Labour

Rebuilding Local Government After Austerity

I became a councillor in 2012 and every year since then I have been actively involved in setting our council budget. That has not been the experience I thought it might be when I first stood for election, for our budgeting has for the most part been about deciding which of the proposed cuts would be least damaging to the people and communities across our area. I don’t know any councillors – of any party – who stood for election to implement austerity.

In Scotland, Local Government’s revenue funding from theScottish Government has reduced from 34.7% in 2013/14 to just 33% in 2019/20. And overall, Local Government in Scotland has made over £2.1b in cash efficiencies since 2012. Of course, the cracks are starting to show, and communities are feeling the impact. These years of austerity not only mean fewer local jobs, but also more pressure on the staff left, with decreasing resource, to try to deliver services for which demand is increasing.

The cuts that councils have had to make have contributed to vacant shops and empty high streets; communities losing their sense of pride; greater social isolation as cuts have been made to community transport; reduced support for the people who need it most. These are things we all recognise and regret.

We cannot continue like this – our communities cannot continue like this. And perhaps it is the very challenges we are facing with Covid 19 which are giving us an opportunity to reboot, to look again, and put all our efforts into building the communities we would like to see.

In local authorities across the UK, our communities need to be able to rely on us in Local Government – in many places we are the biggest local employer as well as the key provider of essential services. We work with partners across the public and Third Sector to support communities and to promote well-being and inclusivity. Councils have a huge contribution to make in tackling climate change and addressing child poverty.

We have a responsibility to continue to innovate, to develop and to deliver.  To share our vision.

And we must not underestimate the potential that we do indeed have in Local Government to build thriving and empowered local communities, strengthened by inclusive economic growth, focussed on well-being and where fairness, social justice and opportunity are key.

Basically communities with our core socialist values at their heart.

I have been heartened this week to read of the work being done in North Ayrshire Council led by Cllr Joe Cullinane. There the Community Wealth Building Strategy is putting in place many of the steps needed to rebuild after austerity in a radical way. The mission is about enhancing local wealth and creating fair and meaningful jobs, while maximising the potential of all North Ayrshire’s places through working in partnership with communities and businesses. Land and assets are being looked at for the community and business benefit they can provide. The council is using its financial power to invest locally, with a huge range of business models being supported. And like other councils are also doing more and more, North Ayrshire is focusing its procurement spend on growing the local business base, and also supporting its net zero carbon ambitions.

This is about a council using the powers it has to build opportunities, to support stronger, more diverse and empowered communities.

It is not a way of thinking that is exclusive by any means to North Ayrshire, but it is a light to many others as we look to support the rebuilding of Local Government after austerity.

This whole process could be made more easy for us in Scottish councils however. And it is our communities who would be the key beneficiaries. We have, with increasing success, been developing the messaging that Local Government is a sphere of government, closer to local communities than others, and not a lower tier in our governance system. And we have been working on a Local Governance Review alongside the Scottish Government, to develop the local democracy and empowerment which is needed to strengthen this message – with varying degrees of success.

An effective, post-austerity, rebuilding of Local Government would involve a shared belief in three empowerments – community empowerment, whereby our communities have the agency, the confidence and the support to work on some of the priorities which local people have themselves identified; functional empowerment, whereby every part of the public sector, alongside local councils, knows that it has the authorityand adaptability to re-organise together and collaborate in an area in a way that meets local need; and, crucially, fiscal empowerment, so that local councils have the powers to raise additional local income to support projects which meet the priorities recognised in partnership with local residents, communities and businesses.

Here in Scotland, we are making progress towards community empowerment, with the development of participatory budgeting and community asset transfer, with a Scottish Government supportive of such projects in a post-austerity context. There is still a lot for us to do however to encourage the Government to work with us more on the journey to functional empowerment, and without fiscal empowerment, the vast potential of local councils to deliver the change we seek and to take hold of every opportunity, will not be fulfilled. For us in Scotland we urgently need a review of local taxation which would give councils more discretionary powers and also a system that would give longer term certainty in relation to budgets.

We often use the hashtag #councilscan. There is however still a big element of hashtag #councilscould and we all need to keep the pressure on the relevant governments to empower us to take every opportunity we see to support our communities, both economically and socially and in partnership with others, as we cope with the current challenges and beyond.