Yesterday, Tuesday, our scheduled coffee morning speaker could not attend due to urgent family matters. We will try to book him again later in the year. So, instead we had a brief talk from Councillor Roy Emmett, who attends our coffee mornings to make the tea (you see, councillors can be useful), on the recent Redbridge council budget.
It was not the budget itself, the millions of pounds of income per year they have lost due to government cut-backs, the extra burdens that have been placed upon them, nor the increase in council tax which made my ears prick up and start a train of thought that I am about to share.
It was a few things about what is going on in the background. First, Lynton House is being refurbished to accommodate a new style of working – hot desking - and they are going for a paperless office (ha, ha!). Second all the individual departmental IT teams have been merged into one. And third all the street lamps are being replaced with energy saving LED bulbs (invest to save).
Now, these are the sort of things that private companies were doing when I was still at work over 20 years ago. So the question is why were council’s not doing it back then? And in particular hard-nosed, business oriented, Conservative run councils like Redbridge?
Well, the answer, I imagine, is that private companies are profit motivated with the drive to cut costs, innovate and increase productivity and efficiency. Whereas the public sector has no comparable motivation.
So, the austerity agenda, which started in 2010 with the election of the Conservative /Liberal Democrat coalition government, is not about any lack of money (there is obviously still a lot of it about as the deficit has increased) but simply a mechanism to “encourage” the public sector to be more efficient.
And it seems to be working, so far. The vast majority of residents will have noticed no difference. Things like schooling still have ring-fenced funding. Our rubbish is still collected weekly and the libraries are still open. There are always potholes this time of year due to the weather. Council tax has gone up but not by that much. OK if you want your green waste collected you will have to pay. And for active community groups, Area Committees have gone and it is much more difficult to engage with officers as there are less of them with less time.
But here we come to the crunch. How much further can this go? Do you squeeze council’s and the public sector until it breaks, or do you back off once the necessary efficiencies have been achieved and how do you judge when that is?