Local government cuts needn't be the end of the world


Local governments are having their spending power cut by 1.8% in real terms next year. Local councils pay for things like social care, some education, public transport and roads, and some of the arts. So this cut is not so popular in some quarters.

I hate relying on ‘waste cutting’ as a way of making spending cuts, but local councils really do seem to waste a lot of money. Since 2010 they’ve made £10bn in efficiency savings, and a third of councils say they can make bigger savings. I’m sure at least some of the other two-thirds are just being shy. The Local Government Association estimates that local governments can continue making efficiency savings at between 1 and 2 percent per year. So that’s something.

The big spending items are social care and waste spending. Both of these can be reformed so that people who can afford to have to pay for themselves. Waste collection is often contracted out, and there is academic evidence that doing so results in significant cost reductions. (There’s an easy way for councils who do not already do this to save some cash.) But more significantly there’s no real reason that more of the actual payments for this should not be moved to private residents as well, at least those who can afford it. 

Social care is much trickier and, as the population gets older and lives for longer, paying for it is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. Those people who can afford to pay for their end-of-life care should do so, but there is the problem that this disincentivises saving. Nevertheless it is hard to see a case for people who live in social housing and earn low amounts of money paying for the end-of-life care of people who own the big houses that they live in. Reforming this wouldn’t solve problems in the short run, but it might help stave off a bigger funding problem in the medium run.

Normally everyone focuses in on arts funding. In my view, there is no role for government in arts funding at all. I won’t convince you of this here, but Pete Spence might. And there are all the weird little things that local governments spend their money on that could be cut to save even a tiny bit of money. Where I live, in Lambeth, half the adverts I see seem to be thinly-veiled political campaign posters (paid for by me and my neighbours).

And, funnily enough, there’s one way councils could raise quite a lot of money and solve another problem in the process. The country needs a lot more houses, and planning permission is the main thing standing in the way. In some parts of the country, a piece of agricultural land that gets planning permission rises in value by one hundred times. Councils should be allowed and encouraged to auction off development rights for new houses. That would raise money for them and help tackle the housing shortage.

The problem here is that housing demand is not equal across the country, and it’s the richer places like London and the south east that would benefit the most from this. So there’s probably a case for some minority fraction of the money raised being redistributed to poorer authorities. In general I like the principle of council funding redistribution from rich to poor parts of the country, but that does reduces the incentive for councils to improve the economic prospects of their own areas. Though perhaps they lack the powers to do this anyway.

We have a government deficit that most people want reduced, some very large areas of central government spending that most people want increased (pensions, healthcare), and a general consensus that economic growth is a good thing (so tax rises are out). Something’s gotta give and there is almost nothing that can be cut painlessly. But given some willingness to reform alongside cutting, local government cuts could be the right way to go.