LONGER-TERM ANSWERS TO THE COUNCIL'S FINANCIAL CHALLENGES

6 Sep 2023
Green shoots growing out of a pile of coins which is being added to with a hand

Slough, Woking, Thurrock, Kent, Birmingham - these are just a few of the councils, of all political colours, in severe financial difficulties at present.  The list grows by the week.  

 

To tackle the challenges of inflation, increasing demand for services, high interest rates and inadequate core funding from central government, councils across the land have been obliged to make often painful savings in order to keep afloat.

 

Wokingham - which receives the lowest amount of core funding from central government, per head of population, of any unitary council in England -  is no exception.

 

Unsurprisingly, opposition politicians try to take advantage - in Wokingham, as elsewhere - of the difficult decisions that council leaders are having to make to save money.  In our case, the opposition, despite clear and demonstrable evidence of the severity of the situation, even deny that there is a financial crisis.  

 

But as the ruling group and opposition battle over the council's finances, I want to lift our eyes from the day-to-day struggles over savings and think about longer-term solutions to the problems that Wokingham and, to a greater or lesser extent, all councils face.

 

We all hope, of course, that the immediate financial crisis will abate and that the extraordinary pressure that councils - and almost every household in the land - have experienced over the last eighteen months will ease.

 

That will undoubtedly help, as lower inflation and lower interest rates will be a great relief to councils and to many households.  But rising demand for services and underfunding by central government are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, as the elderly form a bigger percentage of the population and public finances remain tight due the massive debt built up in the pandemic.  The current government is unlikely to start giving councils significantly more money; even a different government, more well-disposed to the public sector, is not going to have limitless resources to make up the massive gap between what local government needs and what it actually receives - estimated by reputable commentators at around £3 billion.  

 

So how do we plan for a future in which severe limits on what local government can afford is likely to be an on-going pressure?  

 

We can, and will, do all we can within the council to improve efficiency and use inventive methods to deliver services at lower cost.  We will rationalize our own estate, to adapt to new working methods.  But these measures will only take us so far; they will not, on their own, solve the problem.

 

The main way we can survive in a cash-strapped world is by working more closely with others in partnership.  The council must continue to use its resources to support key services, but in the future we will have to pool our efforts with those of other bodies - whether that's other Berkshire unitary councils, town and parish councils in the borough, the voluntary and charitable sector, businesses, the NHS, police and fire services, and educators at both school and university level.

 

This is not about off-loading responsibilities, it's about working alongside others to produce the outcomes that we all want for our community.  The partnership agenda, when it works at its best, brings together different bodies, pooling their data, knowledge, experience, contacts, and resources, to help deliver for the public.

 

To me, this is the future.  To continue as we have done is not an option - councils will simply lack the financial strength to be able to do all they used to do on their own. 

 

But if circumstances dictate such a course, it has many virtues that make it desirable.  Most obviously, we move away from the 'council-knows-best' approach of the past and by working closely with other bodies gain much more insight into problems and how to tackle them.  The community, rather than just the council, finds the solutions.  Put simply, we can achieve more together than we can on our own.