The way in which local government is funded has been “allowed to get into a bit of a mess”, according to the leader of Lancashire County Council.
But Geoff Driver denies that his own authority is in an impossible situation, in spite of facing a shortfall of £144m by the start of the next decade. However, he admits that further reductions in some services are “an inevitability”.
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“It’s not the best situation to be in, but we’ve shown in a little over a year how you can make savings,” County Cllr Driver said.
“I’m a great believer, like most Lancastrians, that you’ve got to cut your suit according to your cloth.”
But the budget at county hall has become increasingly threadbare in recent years, with the authority repeatedly having to use its reserves to balance the books - during the administrations of both political colours.
That means a rainy-day fund which once stood at more than £300m is now forecast to run out in just two years.
Before that point, the council will have to find not far short of double the £81m in savings which have already been identified since the Conservatives retook control of the authority last year.
So where does the leader start to look for that kind of cash?
“[Council] officers are looking at how they can provide the same services at a lower cost, without impacting on those services,” County Cllr Driver said.
“In many, if not most, [departments], we are amongst the highest-spending councils.”
“That might be because it’s really necessary - but I’m sure that’s not going to be the case in every instance”, he added.
The man at the top says he would be “a fool” to claim there would be no further cuts to frontline services, but insists his priority is to protect Lancashire’s most needy.
“It’s absolutely vital that we protect services to vulnerable people and make sure that they are viable,” County Cllr Driver said.
And he rejects any suggestion that decisions taken to date have hit the vulnerable hardest - whilst protecting populist policies like the reopening of the county’s previously-closed libraries.
“We have certain priorities - and libraries are one of [them]. They’re about far more than just going and borrowing a book. In many places, they’re the hub of the community, so other services are provided from there.
“We have to decide what our priorities are and then decide how to sustain them. And the people of Lancashire will decide [at the next election] whether we got that right or not,” County Cllr Driver added.
One thing which he says governments of all persuasions have failed to get right in recent years is the way councils are financed.
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Local authorities have recently been asked by central government how they could be funded more fairly.
County Cllr Driver, who has been involved with local councils for half a century, says the solution lies in going back to basics.
“Councils have different needs….and once those needs have been assessed, they will have different abilities to meet [them] from [their] resources - and that’s where government should be stepping in.
“That’s what I grew up with, that’s what I still believe in and that’s the message we’ve given to the government - and I hope they take account of that.”
A think tank report published this week predicts the outcome of the current review - which the government has committed to implementing - could benefit counties like Lancashire. But the overall budget from central government is not expected to increase.
“Personally, I believe it [should],” County Cllr Driver said.
“In adult social care, it’s getting to a stage where the service needs more resources putting into it and councils don’t have [the funds].”
A recent National Audit Office report revealed social care costs now account for more than half of all councils’ spending.
And yet the county hall leader does not believe Lancashire will be reduced to providing only those “core” services, which councils are obliged to offer.
Several counties have come to that conclusion in recent months - including East Sussex, which has to save less in cash terms, and as a proportion of its budget, than Lancashire.
County Cllr Driver says he has “no idea” why authorities in a similar financial situation are facing that prospect and his own is not.
A recent survey of county councils found that two thirds of them were either “not confident” or “neutral” about their ability to set a balanced budget by 2020 - when Lancashire’s own challenges are likely to come to a head.
And although the council veteran admits to being “saddened” that local government will look very different whenever he leaves the political stage than when he entered it, he says the world is now a different place.
“I don’t hanker for those days, but what I do want is to make sure that we are able to provide the services that the people of Lancashire deserve and need,” County Cllr Driver said.
“There’s no doubt about it that the funding of councils needs to change to make sure that can happen.
“And on that score, we are working hard for that.”
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT SAYS
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government commented:
“Lancashire County Council is receiving £1.5 billion from us over the next two years - and the funding they get has increased by nearly £40m over a four-year period.
“We are also working with councils across the country to develop a funding system for the future based on the needs of different areas - and providing local authorities with £90.7 billion over the next two years.”
FACTS AND STATS
Lancashire County Council’s predicted budget in 2021 - £777m
Money the council has to save by 2021 - £144m
Planned use of reserves (2018-20) - £122m (the entire amount available)
Source: Lancashire County Council
Real-terms reduction in central government funding for councils (2010-17) - 49.1%
Reduction in council spending on social care (2010-16) - 3.0%
Reduction in council spending in other areas (2010-16) - 32.6%
Source: National Audit Office