Last week the most senior Westminster civil servant with responsibility for local government told parliament that councils would still be sustainable even if they could afford to provide only statutory services. What would that mean in practice? What would London be like if its councils just stopped – whether through force or choice – doing anything other then the legal basics required of them?
The fact is, it’s very difficult for councils to separate out a lot of the discretionary services it provides from the statutory ones in the first place. And London’s boroughs have, in part out of necessity, become very good at using discretionary spend to drive down demand for statutory services. Cutting discretionary services is often a false economy.
We already know what the consequences of this are in some areas of council activity, because Londoners can already see and feel the results of funding that is retrenching to the statutory minimum.
The rise in street homelessness is a complex issue, but at its heart are massive cuts to non council budgets like welfare benefits, that drive up demand for local council statutory services. This means more money is spent on people forced on to the streets (and only a fraction of them at that) and there is less money available to stop people becoming street homeless in the first place. Local councils were instrumental in reducing street homelessness in the 2000s, but are slowly being stripped of the capacity to do more.
The debate on knife crime seems to focus on police numbers. But long before any kid picks up a knife there are ways to stop many of them from doing so. However, youth services in London have been hollowed out due to cuts. Councils are doing the best that they can, but the statutory bits of youth services relate to the narrowly focussed youth offending and child protection responsibilities. If you’re to stop a child needing either service – and have a chance of stopping them from getting involved with drugs and weapons – by the time the youth offending team is involved it’s just too late.
London’s youth clubs aren’t just a place for young people to socialise around the activities on offer. They had (and still have) dedicated, professional youth workers. Some literally walk the streets looking for vulnerable young people and encourage and cajole them to use the service, where as well as hanging out with their mates they are getting dedicated support that meets a huge variety of needs. But these services were discretionary, so many of them have closed, scaled back their hours and limited who can access the services. This means vulnerable kids are left on the streets, and no one’s got their back until it’s too late.
While many London councils still provide discretionary help, both to young people and homeless people, the consequences of scaling back towards “statutory only” are already visible to Londoners – and, rightly, of huge concern. But councils have increasingly little room for manoeuvre.
A view of councils which sees their only job as providing statutory services isn’t just reductive in terms of local communities and democracy. It is also a false choice. To reduce demand for statutory services, and to help people and communities succeed, councils need flexibility in their budgets to do more than just the bare minimum.
Sarah Hayward is a Labour former leader of Camden Council.