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NSL’s Graham Williams says bold revenue initiatives can help plug councils’ funding gap

Published in the LGC Chronicle:

Finding new ways of improving efficiencies, introducing new working practices and driving up service standards have all helped to protect the delivery of frontline services in the face of severe budget restrictions. But the pressure on funding is relentless and socioeconomic trends point to ever-growing demand for crucial public services. Could now be the right time for local authorities to move away from a preoccupation with budget restrictions towards bold initiatives to help plug the funding gap, maximise opportunities for reinvestment and foster greater self-sufficiency?

There are already statutes to govern the management and increasing use of charging to support service expenditure. The motivation for such moves is to protect local services, rather than commercial profit. However, the desire to fill the funding gap in order to provide the best outcomes for local communities does represent a shift of emphasis in public services. Councils are becoming less apologetic and less defensive about the selective use of revenue generation in certain service areas. But what else needs to change to ensure such initiatives secure the support of local taxpayers and other stakeholders?

If it’s central government policies that have forced the hands of local authorities, for example, should there now be a relaxation of the statutes governing charges from areas as diverse as social care, environmental health, planning, transport, parking and leisure? What steps and skills are needed to show this shift can protect and support frontline services and deliver significant benefits to local communities, without higher forms of direct taxation?

The only way to win hearts and minds is to encourage and foster a greater sense of trust and engagement. To achieve this, the local community must be aware of what steps are being taken to address a funding shortfall and to understand how and where any revenue surplus is being reinvested to support service performance and delivery.

Such awareness demands a much more progressive mindset where the emphasis is on transparency and openness rather than policy‑making behind closed doors. This all represents quite a departure from what has gone before and there are many more questions lurking around the corner. But given recent developments and the widespread acknowledgement of the impact of austerity measures on local services, I believe now is the time for councils to take a firm and confident grasp of the revenue nettle.