COVID-19 pandemic proved the value of local government in protecting people and communities
Financial pressures have led to councils reducing spend and cutting services, but the pandemic has shown local government services are essential to keeping people safe and healthy.
A decade of austerity has meant councils have had to make cuts to important public services. All councils have a process in place to determine where to reduce spend, however, data used to inform these decisions are not always comprehensive.
The COVID-19 pandemic offers civic leaders an opportunity to revaluate the role and value of local government.
Councils provide services that are essential to keeping citizens safe. These services include education services, safeguarding vulnerable people, social care, waste collection, planning and housing services. Councils also provide services at their discretion. Councils in Wales are responsible for 1,450 activities and services and in 2019-20 spent roughly £8.3 billion on services, all of which make a big difference and help people and local communities.
Deciding where to make cuts to public services is not easy. Often, these decisions start with a focus of determining whether a service is defined as discretionary or statutory, but many council services cannot be defined this way. Overall, when setting budgets, councils have sought to protect services that help the most vulnerable. Services that have faced the biggest reductions are mostly ‘pay as you use’ leisure, recreation and cultural services or regulatory services – despite helping to protect us and enhance wellbeing.
Most councils have put in place processes to determine cuts by reviewing services and identifying options to deliver them in future, although the data is not as comprehensive as it could be. Councils are missing the benefits of involving citizens who are willing to get involved in helping share and run services.
When it comes to prioritising the delivery of services, less consideration is given to wider equality issues such as the needs of those with protected characteristics and the Welsh language, as well as services that can help manage, reduce and/or prevent demand. There is more that councils can do in how they use data more effectively when deciding which services to prioritise and protect when setting budgets. This is important because demand for some essential services continues to rise and councils are not confident that they can continue to deliver all their services in the near future.
The pandemic has required everyone to find new ways of working and seen local government identify new and often innovative ways of helping businesses and keeping people safe. But councils face a real challenge of remaining relevant to all their citizens. Going forward, local government has an opportunity to change what they do and how they do it, and the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 offers opportunities to refresh and revalidate the role and value of local government.
Our research has highlighted the vital part local government plays in protecting people and communities. The pandemic has seen local government stepping up to deliver essential services for their communities. However, reduction in the breadth of service delivery means local councils need to ensure they remain relevant to all their citizens. The pandemic has presented them with an opportunity to revaluate their role and find new, innovative solutions to safeguard the essential services they provide.
Notes to Editors:
- This publication looks how councils define their services and look to protect essential services when dealing with reductions in funding. We focussed on how councils define services, the systems and processes they have used to review services and how robust and comprehensive these are.
- Key facts can be found on page 7.
- Study methodology can be found on page 34.
- The Auditor General is the independent statutory external auditor of the devolved Welsh public sector. He is responsible for the annual audit of the majority of the public money spent in Wales, including the £21 billion of funds that are voted on annually by the Welsh Parliament. Elements of this funding are passed by the Welsh Government to the NHS in Wales (over £8 billion) and to local government (over £4 billion).
- The audit independence of the Auditor General is of paramount importance. He is appointed by the Queen, and his audit work is not subject to direction or control by the Welsh Parliament or government.
- The Wales Audit Office (WAO) is a corporate body consisting of a nine member statutory Board which employs staff and provides other resources to the Auditor General, who is also the Board’s Chief Executive and Accounting Officer. The Board monitors and advises the Auditor General, regarding the exercise of his functions.
- Audit Wales is the umbrella name for the Auditor General for Wales and the Wales Audit Office. Audit Wales is a registered trademark, but it is not a legal entity in itself.