Monday, 7 November 2016

Private bin collections, vulnerable people and the funding of local councils

I'm going to be very careful here because I don't want you all to think I've an issue with the concept of 'vulnerable' people or indeed our obligation to support them. But we need to look at how two factors are throwing a spanner into the works of local government (and the local delivery of services):

1. We're getting better at keeping people alive, which is great, but we're also getting better at giving those people a real life

2. We've realised that year on year real terms increases in the cost of government are unsustainable in an era of (relatively) low growth rates

The consequence of these two - somewhat contradictory  - factors can be seen in stories like this:
Some householders in Greater Manchester are paying a private firm to empty their bins.

Many are angry because some councils have reduced rubbish collections in an attempt to cut costs, and to motivate people to recycle more.

A local businessman who bought himself a truck eighteen months ago is now emptying up to 800 bins a week.
Collecting the rubbish is, as far as most people are concerned, the main - they'll say "only" - service they get from their local council. Yet nearly every local council has now moved from weekly to fortnightly collections (all wrapped up in nice weasel words about recycling) and some are now creeping from every other week to every third week - even once-a-month.

Many of you will have noticed how local roads are getting worse too. There's a simple reason for this - to maintain roads in Bradford over a 25 year cycle, we currently need between £10 million and £11 million spending on them every year. We're actually spending £7 million to £8 million. Even with efficiencies and new technology, those roads will deteriorate.

It's easy to blame austerity - "the cuts" - for this parlous state of affairs. After all that's the second of the two points above. But what you should appreciate is that, even without 'austerity' (which I'll define as spending by local councils remaining at 2010 levels) there would be huge pressures on those general services as a result of 'vulnerable people'.

To illustrate this, I'll talk about the police. Recently I met with a couple of senior coppers to discuss policing challenges in Bradford. For the police (even with, now, a relatively protected budget) there's real pressure on basic frontline service - 'bobbies on the beat' as we most often call it. This is because, quite understandably, the police have been told to give more attention to child sexual abuse, missing people (especially children) and getting better at dealing with people they encounter who have serious mental health problems. These new priorities - usually just added onto the old priorities - are very resource intensive. One missing girl takes up a great deal more police time than one house burglary meaning that more and more resource is redirected to this work with 'vulnerable people'.

For local councils (and here I'm talking about unitary authorities like Bradford) approaching 50% the spending we control is now directed to dealing with these 'vulnerable people'. And there aren't very many of such folk. Looking at the numbers in Bradford, between adult social care, children's social services and programmes in public health (drug and alcohol rehabilitation and so forth) we work with about 15,000 people out of Bradford's half-a-million population - that's 3% of the District's population taking up nearly 50% of the money spent by the Council. And the looking after is expensive - one out-of-district placement for a child with special support needs can cost up to £200,000 a year.

As a result of this, small changes in predicted numbers have a huge impact on budgets - 900 looked after children rather than the 850 we expected and there's a multi-million pound overspend. And other support extends too - we seldom used to get situations where learning disabled adults ended up as carers for their physically disabled parents but this is now happening because we've helped those learning disabled adults have a better, longer and happier life. I could go on - more old people living longer in their homes, disabled children who used to die in their teens are now living into their twenties and thirties and we've rightly decided that children in care shouldn't just be dumped in kindly but crowded children's homes.

The result of all this is that, in one way or another, we're going to end up paying more for things we once considered free. And, while taxation is one way of doing this, I'm not sure I want the council tax of a young family struggling to pay the rent or mortgage to go up and up so we can provide care for an older person living in a house worth £250,000 or more. Unfortunately the debate about funding local services is trapped in a model of property taxes plus grant that precludes alternatives - even in places trying radical approaches like Swindon the solution is based on taxes rather than charges.

Regardless of national funding settlements, local council spending will continue to shift onto personal support services and away from the universal visible services we tend to think of as what our council does. This rather brings into question both the purpose of the local council and also the means by which we fund local government. Property taxes make sense when the services are primarily directed to place rather than people (emptying bins, sweeping streets, fixing potholes, running parks and so forth) but make much less sense when those taxes are overwhelmingly directed to personal support.

I don't know the answer to all this but I am sure that our national debate needs to pay attention to these trends. As a conservative, I'm in favour of personal responsibility with a safety net - where people are able to pay they should pay - but I recognise that we've somehow got the "I've paid into the system, I'm entitled to free stuff" mindset to deal with if this is going to change. In the meantime, Councils will continue to scrimp with the result that you probably won't get your bin emptied so often, the roads will be poor and the park will be tatty.



Anonymous said...

I like this post Simon.

It's given me cause for thought.

I'm very much of the type who requires only potholes, street lighting and bins emptying from my council, and measure my council on that narrow perspective. It won't always be like that, I know. One day I may need 'social services' providing personal care.

I found your open comment about not knowing the answer very apt. As you mention, under the current funding model for local authority services it would appear that a diminishing amount will be available in future years on public services (as we understand them), with funds increasingly directed into personal care for the elderly, and those who are physically or mentally impaired.

My instincts rail against the introduction of another tax, locally or otherwise, even for a specific reason, as time has repeatedly shown these to be increased in both cost and scope, beyond that which they were originally intended. Eventually melding into 'general taxation', or being mis-spent on other things.

The question on how to proceed on identifying the magnitude of this problem, and management of the rising costs, versus delivery does require some thought, and perhaps the discussion is more pressing than appreciated.

This really does need to be addressed.



Curmudgeon said...

So arguably locally-raised taxation should be mainly directed to "place" activities and "vulnerable people" should be supported from central government funding.

KJP said...

"Property taxes make sense when the services are primarily directed to place rather than people"

But it is people who put the stuff in bins. Not sure what the difference is between the collection of dirty nappies from a young family and home help visits to an elderly person; both benefit people rather than the property and the benefit would shift if they moved.
"I'm in favour of personal responsibility with a safety net"
Well that’s how the welfare state started. You were expected to support yourself: you lost your job and got the dole but you were expected to get another job. There was a balance for a lot of people; sometimes you paid in sometimes you got paid out. This was never true for everyone but now there seems two distinct groups; those that always pay in and those that always take and will never pay in. It’s not surprising that the former feel entitled to something back.

markc said...

Nicely written.

If you'll forgive me, I notice that - when local authority talk is of reducing costs and having to cut this and cut that - the subject of defined benefit pension schemes and "employer"* contributions of (usually) 19% - 25% of salary is conspicuous for the silence around it. Same with the Police and other public servants!

*ahem, taxpayer