Could the impact of COVID-19 on local authority finance be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back for many frontline services already emaciated over the past decade by austerity?
APSE has written extensively in the past about budget reductions which have seen authorities lose 60p in the pound from funding provided to them by Government since 2010. This has had a hugely disproportionate impact on the frontline neighbourhood services that the public value the greatest. These huge cuts, compounded by significant rises in demand, across council activities, have squeezed the life out of these often non-statutory services.
With the demand for social care budgets increasing hugely in the current period this will squeeze other frontline services even further. And whilst the public recognise the importance of social care to many of the most vulnerable and needy people at present, the vast majority don’t experience social care in their daily lives.
APSE’s own public opinion polling carried out with Survation shows that most people really value refuse collection, public realm, parks, roads and street cleaning. It is my belief that this love of the frontline has only been enhanced over the past few weeks when these weary warriors have stepped up to the plate yet again and delivered, when everyone else has been placed in a state of suspended animation by lockdown. It would be a real tragedy for local government if this greatly increased recognition of the role it plays in keeping society functioning in the toughest of circumstances is quickly lost by a failure to fund properly these very services in the future.
As we approach the Easter weekend local authority’s parks services will be in sharp focus and will be bracing themselves for what will be a major test of public behaviour as we reach the peak of the curve of COVID-19.
APSE carried out a survey of council parks managers on 8 April to assess what is happening on the ground, with over 90 responses received from across the UK.
To date Government advice has been to keep parks open to allow for exercise, so long as people comply with social distancing guidelines. The survey shows that almost all parks and urban spaces remain open and almost all are keeping at least some of their country parks accessible at present.
In relation to social distancing 79% are saying that nearly all visitors are observing social distancing. Some are experiencing some problems with certain groups, with 63% saying groups of youths have been occasionally problematic, although smaller percentages saying issues have also arisen with exercise groups, cyclists and families.