Diving into the downward spiral
When I was a kid our local leisure centre had a cool water flume type ride. What was great about it was that after you had gone through the fun of the flume it opened out into a big bowl which you spun round and round before dropping out of the end. It was great!
Please bear with me as I torture a metaphor but being in local government is a bit like that water ride at the moment (and not in the sense that it is great).
The top half of the flume represents what local government has experienced so far. Much like the tube section of the flume was predictable, if difficult to control, the budget cuts so far have been understandable for local government. Yes, we’ve been shaken from side to side and yes it feels like we are being pushed downwards by a never ending torrent of budget cuts (told you this metaphor was going to be pushed) but at least we’ve been able to manage the cuts within the context of a direction of travel we all sort of understand.
To return to my flume the ride in the tube was always fairly similar but the big bowl at the end was absolutely unpredictable. Sometimes you flopped straight down into the hole and sometimes you went round and round before falling rather ungracefully into the hole after 30 seconds or so.
If the tube section of the flume represents the already announced Government cuts to the local government budget then the bowl at the end is all the other pressures that are facing local government right now. Whilst the budget cuts are easy to understand; the other cuts are much more unpredictable but like the big bowl of my childhood flume are seemingly dragging us into a big hole.
Halting my metaphor for a moment the other pressures on the budget, and the people we serve, are starting to really concern those of us on the front line.
Examples are everywhere but one really telling example comes from a friend of mine who works in a housing team in a metropolitan council. The amount of people in our communities who are now homeless are growing and as the housing market stagnates and the rental market grows the amount of housing we have available to move people into is shrinking. This means that increasingly residents are ending up in temporary accommodation (often of the bed and breakfast variety). This isn’t nice for the people moving from place to place or for the council whose costs keep going up.
The same sort of crunch is happening in our social care services where, although needs might not be going up because of the economy, the amount that people can contribute to their care is falling. This is putting a further crunch on funding. Likewise, the amount of people eligible for concessionary fares for various different services will be going up and thus our income down.
But, it’s not just our services that come under strain in times of economic struggle. As Eric Pickles is fond of telling us; many councils have a lot of property that in other times they could have sold to fund infrastructure developments. When prices are down this property is worth a lot less and so funding for these projects often has to be found elsewhere.
Add to this a community that is often looking to the council for leadership in these tough times; perhaps help with employment or assistance in regenerating the local area and you can understand why the pressure on councils feels like I used to when heading into the bowl at the bottom of the flume.
It’s unpredictable but at times it feels like we are inevitably heading downwards and there is little we can do to stop it.
I hope I’m wrong.
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