Summarising a pre-pandemic government funding cut on neighbourhood services and the continued post pandemic struggles.
The decade prior to the pandemic had seen successive governments cut grant funding, while demand for adult, children’s social care and statutory services such as homelessness continued to rise. These pressures forced councils to make tough decisions about which services to prioritise and which to scale back. Neighbourhood services – food safety, health and safety, trading standards, libraries, planning, road maintenance, and waste collection and disposal – consequently entered the pandemic with radically reduced or changed amenities.;
Of the £11.8bn spent by local authorities on emergency support across the two years of the pandemic, £1.6bn was spent on neighbourhood services, with £1.1bn spent in 2020/21 and £511.8m in 2021/22. Overall spending on neighbourhood services increased by 1.1% in real terms between 2019/20 and 2020/21, this was 27.3% lower in real terms than 2009/10. This relatively small increase last year hides variations between services. The greatest annual decline was libraries, where funding fell by 7.3% in real terms between 2019/20 and 2020/21. Real terms spending on libraries has now fallen 48% since 2009/10. Spending on both planning and waste collection increased in real terms between 2019/20 and 2020/21, by 3.0% and 9.8% respectively.
Impact of Covid
Despite expectations that reserves would fall during the pandemic, reserves as a proportion of service expenditure increased in 2020/21, although a significant amount of this increase was as a result of the timing of Covid payments. This doesn’t mean local authorities are in a more sustainable financial position than they were before the pandemic, however. Reserves are budgeted to fall in 2021/22 showing that local authorities planned to spend any saved emergency support funding and more in order to meet their obligations.
The pandemic forced local authorities to deliver neighbourhood services differently. Libraries responded to the pandemic by making many of their services virtual, while there was an increased demand for waste collection. The kilograms of waste collected per person from homes increased by 3.6% – as more stayed at home. Less was also recycled, declining from 42.8% in 2019/20 to 41.4% in 2020/21 – the lowest level since 2011/12.
Lockdown also caused backlogs in some neighbourhood services. The Food Standards Authority (FSA) reported that the number of food businesses awaiting inspection in England at the end of March 2022 was 47,546, down from a high of 65,400 at the end of June 2021. This is still 177.4% higher than in February 2020.
Local authorities are also struggling with recruitment and retention. In January, 60% of councils responding to a survey reported either a large or moderate concern that they would not be able to deliver the same quality of services over the next six months due to workforce issues.