Research Project

Future Councils: Life after the spending cuts
8 September, 2011

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Local councils of the future may undergo a process of ‘Californication’ as they respond to budget cuts, new analysis predicts. A report published today by localism think tank the New Local Government Network (NLGN) outlines three new models for town halls of the future as councillors navigate budget cuts in the coming decade.

One scenario outlined in the ‘Future Councils’ report suggests that a lack of funding and new rights for citizens over planning and service delivery could by 2020 leave local authorities in the same kind of position as the Californian state government: struggling to provide services in the face of high demands, low income and increased direct democracy.

Drawing on an analysis of anticipated and emerging trends across the sector and in national politics, the report predicts that councils of the future will take on substantially less direct responsibility for service delivery. In particular the report suggests there will be an increasing emphasis on commissioning services and more devolution of power to neighbourhoods and individuals.

NLGN Director and report author Simon Parker, said:

“Local authorities are quietly preparing to transform the way they work in response to budget cuts. Some services will change radically as councils become commissioning hubs. Expect councils to redesign everything from social care to street cleaning, more delivery by the private and voluntary sectors, and an increased reliance on personal budgets.

“This is a time of risk and possibility for local government. Town halls could find themselves becoming less relevant as direct democracy and consumer-led services start to bypass local democracy. The key for councils who want to remain at the heart of their communities is not just good service delivery, but strong political leadership to drive economic and social growth for their residents.”

In a foreword to the report, Northumberland County Council Chief Executive Steve Stewart said:

“The scenario-based approach taken here is essential. It’s not just the preserve of think tanks and academics. It’s essential for practitioners, especially over the next few years if we are to sustain any kind of economic and social resilience in our places. None of these scenarios might actually materialise, but is likely that elements of all of them could.”

Based on a scenario planning exercise involving senior figures from local government and an analysis of existing council plans for change, ‘Future Councils’ highlights a number of ways town halls could be transformed over the next eight years to 2020 as the cuts bite. These include:

1. Councils in areas such as the north east clustering together into new regional federations to manage economic growth and share their services – with some having Boris Johnson-style ‘metro mayors’

2. Councils introducing ‘pay as you go’ public services for residents and selling their services to neighbouring boroughs, allowing them to cut council tax and perhaps even pay dividends to poorer residents

3. A handful of local authorities that try to commission most of their services might become ‘residual councils’ – a commissioning hub that directly delivers almost no public services.

Publication Date: 8 September 2011
ISBN: 978 1 903 447 932
Authored by: Simon Parker