Poorer areas have been disproportionately affected by a combination of cuts to neighborhood services such as parks, libraries, refuse collection and children’s centers which have left English councils ’emptied’ since 2010, concluded a major report on local government.
The Institute for Government think tank study found that while some councils did better than others, and cutting spending did not necessarily mean worse results, a lack of information made it difficult to learn lessons.
Performance indicators currently exist for only around a third of local government spending, according to the report, with better data needed if ministers were to implement their stated plan to level out different parts of the country.
Based on an analysis of spending and results, as well as anonymous interviews with council chief executives and chief financial officers, the report highlighted a series of sometimes unintended consequences of the severe cuts that began with the policies of austerity in 2010.
The combination of cuts in central subsidies and increased spending on mandatory social obligations for adults and children has led to a significant drop in basic services.
All English local authorities have cut spending on these benefits since 2010, the report found, but the extent of the reduction varied from a 5% reduction in East Sussex to 69% in Barking and Dagenham.
The impact has often been felt in the most deprived areas, which have seen a disproportionate number of library closures and reductions in local bus routes.
This was, according to the report, because the way subsidies have been changed over the past decade did not take due account of how poorer regions were more dependent on central government aid.
But the report, Neighborhood Services Under Strain, noted there was no noticeable correlation between reduced spending and degraded performance, with some councils managing efficiency better or being able to generate revenue from other sources.
However, it was difficult to draw lessons due to a lack of information. Despite departmental promises to provide more data as part of the upgrade efforts, “there are still big gaps in what the government knows about the performance of local services,” said Graham Atkins, the report’s author. .
He said: “If the government really wants to understand how and why performance varies, it will need to collect new, comparable local data on the quality and accessibility of services.”
A key change in municipal service provision since 2010, according to the report, has been the emphasis on statutory service provision, not only in social care, but in areas such as waste collection, homeless shelter and bus passes, with often unintended ripple effects. .
One example cited was the prioritization of acute childhood services at the expense of those such as children’s centres, although this could cost more in the long run if the lack of early support later created greater demand for statutory services. .
Savings on waste disposal and recycling means that while less waste is now sent to landfill, it is simply more likely to be incinerated, with the proportion being recycled only slightly up since 2010.
An example cited in the report of the difficulty of comparing local authority services is the impact on libraries. A third of all libraries have closed amid a 44% cut in spending since 2010.
There is, however, little relationship between expenditures and closures, as many cost savings come from means such as fewer staff and reduced hours of operation. The effect was a 52% reduction in the number of library visits per person between 2009/10 and 2019/20.
“The overall picture is of small local authorities, doing less than they did in 2010,” the report said. “Local government in England has been gutted since 2010.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Leveling, Housing and Communities, said councils would get ‘the resources they need to maintain and improve their services’, with a further £3.7bn available for 2022/23, including £822 million for advice. spend as they wanted.
They added: “Our flagship white paper on leveling up sets out a clear plan for how we will reduce regional inequalities – this includes transforming our approach to data and assessment to improve local decision-making. “