Whilst it suits Whitehall to keep the debate focused on council tax (sample rhetoric: ‘Councils have a moral duty to freeze tax’), for many councils, especially those serving deprived communities, the vast majority of their income does not come from their local tax base but from central government grant.
In Hackney, only 7% percent of our income comes from council tax, and we have frozen tax levels for six consecutive years, with a seventh proposed. Alongside this, the Mayor of Hackney is proposing a budget for 2012/13 with no material cuts to frontline services.
This has been made possible through, amongst other things, an ongoing programme of huge annual efficiency savings, cutting management costs, and restructuring back office services.
Frozen taxes; cutting senior management; slashing waste: all the things the government says we should be doing. However over the following two financial years we will have to find up to £40million in savings to bridge the gap left by massive reductions in government grants and cost pressures such as inflation and rising energy costs.
There is no way we can do that without affecting services, and in March this year we will be launching a major engagement exercise with our residents to talk about how we do this.
The truth is, for many authorities, although everyone will have to consider their council tax levels very carefully, the amount a council could raise through a modest tax increase of say 3.4% (the maximum allowed without triggering an expensive referendum), is a drop in the ocean of the financial challenges to come.
The scale of what we are facing is unprecedented and sets us, as a profession, a huge communications challenge.
How do we find ways of explaining the dry complexities of local government finance to ordinary people? How do we make sure that the facts don’t get lost in the media hysteria over ‘waste’, the Government’s strident moralising over council tax, the noise created by local pressure groups defending their interests?
And most importantly, how do we make sure that the voices of those whose lives will be most affected by the cuts are heard? Wherever we work, we need to give residents full, clear and balanced information and make it as accessible as we can.
We need to explain the choices that must be made and create ways through which residents can have their say on those choices.
Councils must start to lead the debate on financing local public services by talking and listening to local people, giving them the information they need, and by being absolutely transparent about the decisions being made.
That is the real reputation challenge, and unless we do that, the goodwill of residents will be sorely tested, whether or not taxes go up.
Polly Rance is head of media and external relations at the London Borough of Hackney