The much maligned ring fence
This blog can be guilty of a form of post-writing schizophrenia. With different writers and daily requirements it is entirely possible to read posts that flat out contradict each other. Today is one of those days.
In the past this blog has been very positive about the removal of the so called local authority ring fence and the Government’s attempts to free up local authorities to act in the interest of their local communities; regardless of what the Government think. The flip side of this admirable argument is that when the Government removes the ring fences it is the services that were once ‘fenced’ that are most at risk.
This unfortunate truth was on display in force last week as both young people and those reliant on Supported Living services found that the removal of the ring fence.
In the case of the Supporting People grant the removal of the ring-fence was actually made in 2009 and we have two years or evidence to look at. The LGIU have prepared an interesting briefing and concluded that:
At the same time (as the ring fence was removed), councils across the country are faced with very difficult financial decisions as they cut an average of 28 per cent of their budgets. As a discretionary service, Supporting People is particularly vulnerable and it is clear that despite lamentations from central government, housing related support is declining at a local level in many councils.
As mentioned in the briefing the removal of this particular ringfence has not been accompanied by the Government asking councils to stop spending money on the service. In contrast Grant Shapps, our energetic housing minister, has taken to hectoring local government to spend more money on the services. Local government, taking the budget in the round has largely ignored him.
As well as protecting services it should be said that the ring fence does also seriously impact the delivery of the service. I asked around and apparently my local authority is one of those that is reducing spending. The view of those who work in the area is that the ring fence meant that we spent proportionately more on the services than we would have spent on equivalent services in other similar areas. The removal of the ring fence has meant things have gone the other way and the service will be of a much lower standard and limited to a smaller client group.
For youth services the impact was felt almost as soon as the current Government took over. The budget for childrens services is especially prone to ring fences and statutory requirements. Thus, when the ring fence around these services was removed it was almost like a green light to local authorities to stop spending money on these services. In that area there was not much else to cut.
For both of these services the story is unfortunately a familiar one. As explained in previous posts local authorities have a lot of things that they legally have to do and the costs of those things, especially in the area of social care continues to rise.
Thus, if the council wants to protect (as far as is possible) those core services with statutory implications the impact on other services is greater. Plus, if the cuts they need to make add up to 27% of the council budget then if you protect certain social care services the cuts you need to make are higher in other areas. As explained in another context, this is even worse when the services you legally have to provide make up the vast majority of the council budget.
Despite the impact on the services many people would argue that the ring fence is just an artificial way for the Government to control local government. As mentioned we would usually say the same (one of my colleagues already has) and would advocate the removal of these ring fences.
However, because of how constrained local government is and how dependant we are on legislation to determine exactly which services we provide when there isn’t a ring fence local government has little choice but to stop providing the service. Whilst local government has little or no discretion over the majority of its budget the removal of ring fences is in reality an invitation for them to stop providing the services. In this context maybe keeping the ring fence in place might be the right thing to do; not for local government but for the people who rely on the services.
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