Independent living underpinning council budget spells end of cradle to grave welfare state culture
There are two words that underpin the financial strategy Birmingham city council is adopting to deliver £250 million of savings over the next four years on top of the £560 million already cut since 2010: ‘independence’ and ‘prevention’, writes Paul Dale.
Those in need of social care, particularly older people, will be encouraged to live independent lives at home with support, rather than entering expensive residential accommodation.
Children and young adults with learning disabilities will similarly be helped to live independently, and if they cannot do so they will be ‘signposted’ by the council to alternative providers and handed a personal budget which might or might not cover the full cost of the help they require.
And while the disposal of care homes and day centres gathers pace, the second element of the council’s strategy will kick into place – prevention.
The thinking is that millions can be saved by intervening earlier to support problem families and preventing children from being taken into care, while helping vulnerable adults to avoid falls at home will reduce the strain on hospitals and reduce admission into costly residential placements.
It’s hardly very new stuff. Birmingham, in common with almost every other council in the country, has been talking about independence and prevention for years. But now the council’s financial plight is so grave that a change away from an all-purpose authority running services to a strategic body that commissions services from others, and forms meaningful and productive partnerships, is essential.
We are finally witnessing the last of the salami-slicing approach to budgeting. As the new city council leader John Clancy said, it is no longer possible to “cut a certain amount here and a certain amount there” and the council has to “remodel and re-imagine” the way it does things.
The council leader explained there would have to be a move away from an “all-purpose council” to a “strategic council working with others to deliver fewer, predominantly targeted services.”
“We have to look at preventative methods to reduce demand for services. We have to look at how children come into care. We want to target support for families so that when they are struggling we can help them with parenting skills.”
If this strategy does not work, the council will simply bankrupt itself because the pressure of responding to the social care needs of an ageing population and helping children and young adults with learning difficulties will swamp and consume a reducing budget.
The question is: can the huge culture change demanded by the move to independence and away from 70 years of a cradle to the grave welfare state notion that councils are always there to help be pushed through quickly enough to deliver the savings required, while safeguarding the quality of social care?
Can, for example, parents be persuaded that their children really don’t need to travel to school on transport provided by the council, often expensive taxis, and can be trusted to make their own way across Birmingham using public transport in the knowledge that this may involve changing buses or trains along the way?
Equally, can enough parents be convinced that their children are perfectly safe walking with each other to reduce the toxic effect of one or two mile car journeys to and from school each day?
One of the biggest calls in the council budget over the next four years is a radical plan to pool all spending on older adults with the local NHS budget, thereby unleashing almost unimaginable economies of scale and generating £60 million is savings by 2019-20. Should Birmingham pull this one off, other cities will surely follow suit.
There are other big issues in the draft budget that hint at trade union opposition and public outrage.
It’s been pretty much an open secret that 2019 is the date set to outsource, or privatise, the council’s refuse collection and street cleaning services, but this is now confirmed.
It’s also been clear for a while that the workforce reforms of recent years were but a staging post in an altogether more radical approach which will make inroads into holiday entitlement and sick pay for the 11,000 council staff still in a job.
And next year will produce the latest phase of a protracted and rather messy plan to close leisure centres and swimming pools, or invite voluntary groups to run them. Public protests are likely, and there are bound to be campaigns against plans to sell off disused or under-used parks for new housing.
Here are highlights from the more controversial aspects of the council budget, with analysis of likely reaction from unions and the public:
Changing terms and conditions of the workforce
This proposal, to save £34 million by 2019-20, entails increasing working hours, cutting holidays and sick pay and insisting that employees are more “flexible” in their working patterns. Suffice to say, it’s not going to go down very well with the workers or their trade unions.
Reconfiguration of waste collection services
Sounds innocent enough but the probable privatisation of refuse collection and street sweeping post-2019 to save £17.6 million a year will put the council on collision course with the trade unions and could prove a difficult pill to swallow for some Labour councillors.
Discontinue non-framework contract at health and wellbeing centres
Leisure centres and swimming pools, including the Moseley Road baths, could close to save £2.5 million. Expect vigorous protests from community campaigners.
Internal care review
It’s proposed to save £1.5 million by closing some older adults’ care centres. If the council is correct in claiming that most people don’t want to go to such centres, then there won’t be a problem. Big if, though.
Promote independent travel and reduce reliance on council-funded transport
Every year the council says it will cut back or even remove altogether home to school transport for most children, and then backtracks following protests. This time council leaders claim they are serious and will save £2.8 million by encouraging young people to travel independently. We’ll see.
Design and implement a new approach to special educational needs and disabilities
This is another hugely controversial area and one where the council is facing increased demand for its services year upon year. The aim is to move away from a high dependency model and save £10 million by 2019-20 by “changing the way services are delivered and potentially decommissioning some existing services”. Potential here for an explosive and emotional row.
Disposal of unwanted and under-used parks
The plan is to sell eight acres of parkland a year for the next four years to build new homes. This is expected to raise £800,000 by 2019-20, but is bound to anger local communities.
Transfer out of hours calls from contact centre to outside contractors
Tenants phoning the council at night and at weekends to demand housing repairs will be diverted to “third party service providers” to save £600,000. All will be fine, if the service is good. This could provoke anger among backbench Labour councillors whose postbags are already full of complaints about the contact centre.
Young Active Travel
Another bland title that disguises plans to phase out completely funding for school crossing patrols to save £881,000. Schools, parents and local communities are expected to make arrangements for safety, funding patrols if they wish. The council says increased road safety improvement and 20mph speed limits mean crossing patrols are no longer required. You can expect a huge row over this and a ‘save our lollipop men and women’ campaign.
Creating a more balanced financial strategy for arts and culture
Basically, this entails the council cutting a further £500,000 by 2018-19 from the investment in makes in Birmingham’s arts and culture provision. Partners and stakeholders are expected to pick up the slack. This could result in some high-profile campaigns from those who believe in the community benefits as well as economic value of arts, culture and heritage.
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