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August 2010

Age of Austerity

Age of Austerity

Wow, in looking through my LGTAG file I see it has been over a year since my first blog…

And what a year, we are formally in the “Age of Austerity” and much attention been given to how we, in the public sector, can share the pain borne by our mercantile counterparts in order to right the economy. In this regard the Chancellor, Mr Osborne announced measures in June to speed up the repayment of the £150 billion odd of debt previously incurred.

This will have an impact on both local and central government and yet we are being exhorted to ensure that front-line services are not compromised… There will have to be a rebalancing of budgets and priorities between the different tiers and much ink is being, or will be, split on this endeavour later in the year as the next Comprehensive Spending Review emerges.

Personally, I’ve been rather disappointed that so far, the opportunity to improve the UK’s sustainability and, for example, shift taxes away from “goods” to environmental “bads” hasn’t progressed further…but I guess that’s for another day.

Meanwhile our Minister, Mr Pickles, is calling into question jobs such as cheerleading coordinators and waste service communications officers and whether these are, in fact, “non jobs”. At the recent Local Government Association annual conference, he went further and queried whether this title should also apply to Chief Executives… In this latter instance, he believes that more modern administrative arrangements with shared posts across council boundaries, or a more executive-leader style of councillor would be beneficial and more locally productive. I guess there will be some debate on this but nonetheless, while these questions are challenging, we face an inescapable truth – we need to do more with less.

In my area of work, waste management, I know of a potential saving which could yield millions of pounds per region almost immediately. Recycling now costs less than landfilling so, if more people recycled regularly and with lower levels of contamination then we would not spend so much in terms of landfill disposal, the majority of which is tax.

This leads to a significant question, and one that I don’t believe we have managed to frame yet. Much of what we do has been about providing services as “more of the same” or a variation thereof. This, as I see it, has been what many of the debates regarding Total Place, Big Society, have been about; how we can ensure that the current front-line services are not compromised.

But should greater attention be paid by all of us to a more strategic issue? Instead of public rights and how to maintain current service levels, should we be seeking to extend the conversation to consider how we can better highlight personal responsibility and the cause and effect loops we learnt in school? If this was successful, it could foster a clearer understanding of what money is being spent and why and how expenditure on services such as street cleansing could be redirected into other longer-term impactful projects, as well as encourage greater local understanding, engagement and ultimately improved democracy… or perhaps this is what these Government initiatives are seeking to do…

Tim Walker


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