Jo Miller: Why devolution can help bring funding equality

Jo Miller is the chief executive of Doncaster Council.
Jo Miller is the chief executive of Doncaster Council.
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I’VE been chief executive at Doncaster Council for six and a half years. In 2017 my peers elected me as President of
Solace – the Association of Council Chief Executives and Senior Managers.

Solace has around 1,800 members and has had a strong focus these last few years on manging in the context of austerity. We have worked alongside political leaders to manage reductions in government funding while maintaining local ambition for our places and ensuring the delivery of quality public services.

A National Audit office report showed that the financial sustainability of councils is grave, and we have seen one – Northamptonshire – effectively ‘go under’. A Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) survey published this week expects other councils to face serious financial crisis in the next year.

From 2020 onwards, we don’t know how we will be funded – the lack of a coherent plan makes life particularly challenging and the Government is embarking on another comprehensive spending review this autumn.

As council budgets have reduced, resources have inevitably been spent on acute services, looking after our most vulnerable, but we need to ensure that there is an offer for everyone, that every neighbourhood has good quality public realm and good relationships between residents. All this whilst helping our economies to grow.

It’s more often the case than not that a whole range of agencies have the solution to the problems we face – ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. We know that if councils invest in good care for the elderly living at home, and in reducing loneliness, there will be far fewer referrals into our local hospitals.

We know that working intensively with young people at risk, investing in quality youth work and family therapy, reduces the number of young people in the criminal justice system. That investment by local government saves central government money and is better for people.

I’m proud of how councils have worked to manage austerity. We haven’t whined or given up. We’ve created new relationships with citizens to give them more power, become more entrepreneurial and worked hard with partners. These actions have delivered more with less, extracting every ounce of value from the public pound.

Our staff have done a fantastic job, have gone above and beyond but are now reaching their limits. More of what has gone before will not do. ‘Delivering more for less’ has worn razor thin. At all levels, staff are covering roles that used to be done by multiple people, or multiple organisations. That’s why investing in our people is so important, no matter how tight budgets become.

In Doncaster alone, investment in youth crime prevention work has seen fewer children than ever before entering the criminal justice system, and less reoffending than ever before. Great for our youngsters, and the communities in which they live.

But nationally, as we see local council funding cut to the bone, with significant workforce reductions, (typically around one third), central government (Whitehall) workforce has increased.

Solace will be making the case for sustainable public services that goes beyond a numbers game. All public sector colleagues (health, emergency services, councils, etc) are wrestling with reduced funds, ageing population and workforces, rapid technological change and the impact Brexit could have on our local areas.

It’s time for a radical and collective approach to public funding that focuses on local places rather than individual government departments.

That way, we can ensure that the money invested in prevention which results in savings elsewhere, can be reinvested locally, rather than flow back to Whitehall.

Devolution at scale, like the One Yorkshire proposals, can help bring this about. It’s time.

Jo Miller is chief executive of 
Doncaster Council.