Avoiding a repeat of the 1980s

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By Ben Lucas

For all the reform strategies and grand narratives emerging from Whitehall, much of the real action will happen at the local level.

This week we heard how individual government departments plan to implement the spending review.  But it is in towns and cities where the hard implications of fiscal retrenchment will be most felt.   For all the reform strategies and grand narratives emerging from Whitehall, much of the real action will happen at local level. 


This is partly a result of the Coalition Government’s welcome drive to localise decisions over public services - the proof of which can be seen in the removal of most of the ring fencing around Council expenditure.  But more importantly, it is because Councils will have to decide how to cut their Budgets by 30% over the next four years and this will have a big impact on the quality of community life. 


The message from the 2020 Public Services RSA Summit - the first gathering of Council, voluntary sector and other public service leaders since the Spending Review - was that Councils must not approach their Budget reviews on the basis of business as normal decision making.  If they do then all we will be left with is fewer and worse services.  Communities and the vulnerable will suffer and the worst fears of the Big Society as a cover for cuts will have been realised.


The conventional response of Councils would be to cut all those services over which they have the greatest discretion and which are not seen as ‘core’.  These are the public realm, community development and targeted social intervention services.  But if these services are cut, in the most deprived areas, then far from civil society emerging spontaneously to fill the gap there will be a retreat from public space and communities will be weakened.  This is what happened in the 1980s when there was “no such thing as society’ - the test for the ‘Big Society’ will be whether we can stop the same cycle from repeating itself.


There’s still a small window of opportunity for Councils to urgently assess how they can develop creative alternatives to socially damaging cuts, before they set their Budgets.  The key is to avoid cutting services and expenditure which will weaken community capacity and instead to think about reform, reconfiguration and new resources.  That means identifying those public service institutions and services which most effectively engage social networks and community participation and making them the hub of neighborhood services, putting less resource in town halls and more in local communities.


It also means looking at how the best local public service institutions can be strengthened by new forms of community ownership, which mobilise the time and commitment of staff and local people.  Rather than just assuming that libraries or parks must close if the Council no longer has the money to run them then local people must be engaged in trying to find more flexible and imaginative ways not just of saving these services but of reviving them. 


This will not be easy and in some circumstances, especially for some deprived communities, with low levels of social capital, it will mean having to find new money.  Some of this will come from breaking down boundaries between different Town Hall and Whitehall services to reshape them around what’s most needed in particular neighbourhoods.  We set out some of the thinking which could guide this in the final report of our Commission on 2020 Public Services.  Now our focus will be on working with local Councils and other local partners who want to make social productivity part of their creative alternative to old fashioned cuts.



Ben Lucas

Director, 2020 Public Services Trust


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