Council spending on 'neighbourhood' services falls by £3bn since 2011

Cuts to services such as bin collection, planning and pothole repair amount to dismantling of core functions of local government, says report

English councils’ spending on neighbourhood services, such as bins, planning, potholes and leisure, has fallen by more than £3bn in the past five years, research has found.

A report, published by the benchmarking group, the Association for Public Service Excellence (Apse), says the huge cuts to funding and the wide variations between authorities in funding services were “changing the very nature of local government.”

The reductions amount to a dismantling of universal services that are the most high-profile, core functions of local government, the report says. “These services need defending in their own right as part of wider defence of local government as a whole.”

The most deprived council areas have seen the biggest falls in spending in these services – up to 22% on average over five years among the most deprived fifth of authorities, compared with just 5% among the wealthiest, research shows.

The poorest areas had an especially sharp spending fall in, for example, food and water safety inspection, road safety and school crossings, community centres and services aimed at cutting crime – such as CCTV – and support for local bus services.

There were wide variations across the country, with some councils cutting neighbourhood services by 40% while others have increased these budgets by 20%.

The cuts to neighbourhood services have taken place against a backdrop of unprecedented cuts in local government spending as a share of the economy. In 2010-11, it accounted for 8.4% of the economy, falling to 6.7% by 2015-16. By 2020-21, it will be down to 5.7%, a 60-year low, the report says.

Although much of the political focus of local government cuts has been on social care services, the impact on neighbourhood services, which include highways and transport, cultural services, environmental services and planning, has been far greater, the report says.

Spending on neighbourhood services in England fell £3.1bn, or 13%, between 2010-11 and 2015-16 at a time when social care spending increased by £2.3bn.

“Neighbourhood services should be on an equal footing to other public services and not viewed as a painless option for more cuts in local spending,” the report says.

Council managers interviewed for the report said there was a perception that funding for local government services was a “zero sum game” in which neighbourhood services had become collateral damage as councils sought to protect social care services.

“One member expressed his dismay that he no longer had the staff to maintain some verges in his area, which had become overgrown, but that within the context of austerity these overgrown verges were the price to pay for ensuring that a vulnerable person in the area would receive the support they required,” it says.

Apse chief executive Paul O’Brien said: “While many are terming the forthcoming general election as the ‘Brexit election’, we can’t afford to ignore the bread and butter neighbourhood issues.

“In eight years, local government spending will have dropped from two thirds of that of central government’s to half. There is a slow but very harmful dismantling of neighbourhood services that marks a profound change in what local public services our communities can expect to receive.

“From emptying bins to running swimming pools to providing high quality local parks, spending on these services which communities really value has been cut harder and faster than any other area of public service spend. Centrally driven austerity has fallen hardest on local shoulders. ”

However, there appears to be little recognition from the public that councils have tried hard to maintain neighbourhood services of acceptable standard, with 41% believing local services have declined in their local areas in recent years, according to an Apse survey. Just a quarter held central government responsible for declining services at local level.

The report calls for the reestablishment of need-based grant within council funding to rebalance resources between poorer and wealthy councils.

“Since the deepest cuts have been in the most deprived parts of the country, some needs-based system of central grant that addresses this is unavoidable,” it says.

“This is not a challenge to localism but to the idea that localism means that central government can wash its hands of responsibility.”

Contributor

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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