In the Bleak Mid-Decade: The View from Bartle Borough Council in 2017

It’s 2017.  We are halfway through the projected decade of austerity. 

Bartle Borough Council is a (fictional) unitary with 250,000 residents. It describes itself as a “commissioning council” and more than 80% of its services are provided by the private or voluntary sector. Resident satisfaction is pretty good – just below upper quartile. 75% of its back office services are shared with Anderton Borough Council and Charlesworth Council, and sharing services means that its unit costs are in the lowest quartile of similar councils. Since austerity struck social care costs have been halved per service recipient by a combination of redefining thresholds, and descoping care packages, plus some more positive intiatives – but there are a lot more service recipients.

Despite all this good work from 2012 to 2017 the council faces a budget crisis. Reserves are at 1.5%, and there is a £10m gap in funding for each of the next five years (on the current base of £200m, which used to be £300m in 2009). Relentless demographic pressures, and worklessness take their toll on council services. Health inequalities have worsened but no-one seems as bothered by that these days. Where once there were 40 officers in the top three tiers of the council there are now 15. The chief executive is also the statutory director of adults and children. The Deputy chief executive covers resources and transformation, and there’s a Director of universal services covering roads, the (one) library, environment and schools.

They can’t believe that after five years of slog, and doing all of the right things, that they still have a budget gap. They feel poised on the brink of sliding down to the awful position which other councils are in, basically rationing ever more meagre services, and patching things up as best they can, seeing emergency national resources going to the less well run councils. Was this all that effort was for? Simply delaying the slide?

So here’s the question: Is this plausible – would a council which did “all the right things” actually be in this position? What can it do next? What should it have done 5 years ago? I have some views – what are yours?

I originally wrote this blog on a dark day in December last year and got too depressed by it to publish it (!)  though it has since then been quite a powerful motivator for me to think of solutions.  Since then I’ve had some injections of positivity too – not least last weekend’s LocalGovCamp and the LGC Future Leaders event, but we’ve also had the LGA graph of doom analysis  – so I’ve decided to put this out there and see what happens.  Please don’t hit me.  I’d love for this not to come true.

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