The Metro this week reported that the Local Government Association is warning the government of a £20bn shortfall for councils if the government imposes cuts without public sector reforms. The group also said that the spending squeeze could hit vital frontline services, ahead of next month’s comprehensive spending review. However, BDO's recent research entitled 'Revenue & Charging - A Perfect Storm', conducted with Ipsos MORI and YouGov, found that the public are not opposed to part of the shortfall being met through an alternative route – councils raising income by charging for services.
Based on polling of both local authority Chief Executives and Chief Finance Officers and the public, the findings from the research offer real insights into the opportunities for councils to navigate their way through the forthcoming financial reforms in a way that supports public services and gains public support. In summary, the public are not opposed to wider use of charging in local government but, for the majority, their support is conditional: they are only willing to accept it if the money raised results in other services being protected from cuts.
It is clear from the survey of Chief Executives that the majority of respondents view charging for services as a tool which will become increasingly important to local authorities as they seek to protect, and indeed improve, frontline services in a highly constrained financial context.
It is also clear that, despite an often difficult public and media debate, the public is prepared to support increases in charging for certain services, provided there is a relationship between charges and the protection of services. In addition, the public is prepared to enter into a much more nuanced and sophisticated conversation about charging than it might sometimes appear. Catch-all headlines about bin taxes and parking miss the shared ground between councils and the public on some aspects of services which could be charged for, and the potential for a more differentiated approach to charging which can offer greater choice and a better service to the user. For example, nearly two-thirds of public respondents expressed support for councils charging for fast-track or premium services, in a system similar to that already used by the Passport Office.
It is clear that councils are facing major financial reforms and need to make difficult financial and political decisions on the delivery of services in a period of reduced government spending. However, our research shows that, although there will undoubtedly be a need for cuts, an alternative solution does exist to bridge part of the gap, and that solution is supported by both councils and the public in a combined desire to protect frontline services.