To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address 55 years ago: ‘Ask not what Swindon can do for you – ask what you can do for Swindon?’
It was a challenge to a nation then, but the question applies to any aspect of society where services are provided or received. And for Swindon Council chief executive John Gilbert, pictured above and below, it’s more important than ever in these ever tougher financial times.
Looking back on his 35 year career he said local government is now in uncharted territory, and this impacts every council taxpayer. “Thinking back, there was never enough money to achieve what you wanted to do, but when you compare the resources we had then to what we have now after several years of austerity we are in a completely new situation. No one has experience of the profound change we are currently involved with.”
Local government has been hit hard since the economic chaos of 2008/09. The Conservative Government elected in 2010 has imposed severe cutbacks which will continue until 2020 whilst increased child protection legislation and the rapidly ageing population requiring extra services has created major problems for delivering local services. And this might be compounded if leaving the European Union has a negative impact on the strength of the British economy.
But the changing relationship between councils and the citizens who elect councillors to make decisions on their behalf is something the general public has yet to take on board. People still expect the services they had five or ten years ago and John recognises this continuing disconnect.
“Over the last eight years, Swindon Council has saved £120 million from its budget and we have to find around £20 million in savings each year for the next three or four years. With that level of budget reduction, we have to approach service delivery differently now and in the future,” he said.
“Only eight years ago over 50 per cent of the budget was spent on universal services – the visible things like grass cutting, litter picking, refuse collection and planning services which people believe they pay their council tax for. This now has to be funded from just 28 per cent of the budget. The council has to spend the majority of its money, the other 72 per cent, on services for vulnerable children and adults – you could call these invisible services. And as the population grows and continues to age, the financial pressures will become even greater.
“People also have to be aware that Government has stated that by 2020 grant funding of local services will be virtually removed altogether by which point nearly 80 per cent of our budget is expected to be spent supporting vulnerable people.”
This is where the idea of parishing the parts of the town not already in a parish council area comes in. Swindon Council, prevented by government from raising council taxes without a local referendum, is currently carrying out a Community Governance Review and the council is due to make a decision whether to proceed with parishing in November.
So far, the government does not impose a cap on parish councils’ ability to levy a local precept (tax) to fund locally decided services like grass cutting and litter picking.
John believes parishing shouldn’t be boiled down to pounds and pence. Almost half of the town is in a parish council which puts decision making about visible services at a local level. It also ensures the money set aside for providing those services is ring-fenced enabling people living in those areas to prioritise what it is spent on and ensure it goes towards the services most important to them.
Although change is not to everybody’s liking at first, John says passing on responsibility for deciding how a community spends its budget on local services can have positive benefits. For the last two years, the council has transferred some local services to existing parish councils and says that feedback has shown that residents have seen real improvements in their local area.
“From my past experiences I’ve always believed we should be striving for greater engagement with residents to create a better understanding of the situation the council finds itself in and where the budget goes,” he said. “We need to explain the context so that residents will discuss with the council how we can work together to find a solution. I’m the first to say that we don’t have the answers and they are likely to be found out there in the community.
“The engagement sessions in June and July aimed to provide opportunities for two way discussions where officers and members explained the financial or legal limitations on the council. Engagement should be open and transparent so that we can co-create solutions to continue those local visible services. We’re faced by having to decide to stop doing stuff, do things differently, pay more, or a combination of the three. As much as I would like to use a magic wand, there isn’t one.
“I fully appreciate people’s frustration that the council is working to a timetable. We are caught in what I call the perpetual hamster wheel of time where the process of making and balancing a budget never stops. It’s something we’re unable to slow down so it’s a big challenge to align the system we’re caught in and the expectations of residents.
“Unfortunately arguing that if we batten down the hatches and hope the problems will go away isn’t going to work. We can only find solutions if the council made up of elected councillors and officers work together with residents.
“It gives all of us hope and helps us shape the future together.”