Chris Game

 

I admit it: I cheat.  For years I’ve chatted and written about UK local government, for predominantly local government audiences and readerships, and I’m selective in the illustrative material I deploy.  If there are numbers and examples that could present local government in a more or less favourable light, I’ll go first for the more favourable. I might mention that other researched statistics are available, but I’m not, say, a Government minister and, yes, I play to the crowd.

 

Which means regularly citing the now triannual random sample surveys the Local Government Association (LGA) commissions Populus Data Solutions to conduct on GB residents’ satisfaction with their local councils. Whether it’s money most productively spent is not, happily, my concern.  I’m just grateful, and carry on plundering their graphs and tables.

 

Graphs like this one, from the most recent report, plotting what generally has been a gradual, but perhaps surprisingly gradual, decline in residents’ satisfaction with various services. Quite what produced the Summer 2015 burst of enthusiasm I’m not sure.  Probably not David Cameron’s unexpected General Election majority, so possibly just a skewed sample.

 

Road maintenance has struggled a bit recently, but, contextualised by some of the headline figures in the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ recent report on English Local Government Funding most services’ satisfaction ratings have held up perhaps surprisingly well, including the jointly ringed social services, of which more shortly.

 

The IFS calculated that central government funding cuts since 2009-10 have led to a 17% fall in councils’ spending on local services – equal, taking account of population change, to 23% or nearly £300 per person. In 2009-10 just over a third of councils’ revenues for services other than education came from council tax and business rates; today it’s 80%. You’d have to be a seriously unobservant resident not to have clocked something of the consequences.

 

The IFS also reported recently on UK Health Spending, noting that, while “the government’s approach to NHS capital spending in recent years has left a great deal to be desired”, current funding of health has at least been increasing annually, as opposed to the decreases faced by councils’ social services departments (my emphasis again).

 

Set against that fiscal and financial background, other stats from those same 2020/21 Populus local government surveys don’t seem that shameful either.  Very/fairly satisfied with the way my local council runs things: 63%.  Trust my local council a great deal or fair amount: 59%.  Politicians most trusted to make local decisions: local councillors 71%, MPs 12%, Government Ministers 7%. 

 

Topped off by the one guaranteed a cheer from almost any local government audience, even if the bar is set pretty low: this from the Hansard Society’s most recent (2019) annual Audit of Political Engagement.

 

Complete, or a fair amount of, confidence in the following to act in the public’s best interests: banks 36%, big business 26%, the Government 33%, political parties 29%, MPs 34%, local government (councils) 44%.   

 

My point in raising this is that for numerous reasons relatively few people will have seen this latest LGA/Populus report since its recent publication, actually on April 1st.  What the public wanted, this April especially, was something with NHS in the title and about how much we value (or undervalue) the great work it does.

 

Nuffield (health care) Trust and the King’s Fund (health policy think tank) can’t have anticipated this when preparing their annual round-up of health and social care findings from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey. But, publishing two days later on April 3rd, they struck lucky, getting plenty of coverage, not least in the local government media.  

 

Let me be clear: the BSA is, as Nuffield/King’s Fund rightly note, a ‘gold standard’ survey, and I don’t blame the two distinguished health care institutions wanting to sponsor in recent years a handful of additional questions to a sub-sample of respondents into social care, as well as the range of NHS, services.

 

My reservation has been that, almost inevitably, these questions must appear to at least some respondents, as when reported in the illustrated table, slightly jarring add-ons, not least because they require an introduction explaining the switch from the NHS to “social care provided by local authorities for people who cannot look after themselves because of illness, disability or old age.”  

 

 

It seems, in short, to be seeking to compare the range of NHS services, funded largely from general taxation, with not a range of local authority services, but presumably a combination of adult and children’s care – funded by a mix of council tax revenues, steadily reducing general-purpose central government grants, and means-tested.  In boxing parlance, a catchweight contest.

 

The Nuffield/King’s Fund studies recognise this, invariably including in their reports warnings about how “public understanding of social care is relatively limited compared to people’s understanding of NHS services”, that proportions of ‘don’t know’ and ‘neither satisfied nor dissatisfied’ responses are much higher than for NHS services, and that “caution should therefore be applied when interpreting the data”.  But still they ask the questions, and include responses in the same tables – in a kind of inversion of the Government’s daily reporting of Covid-19 deaths.

 

It always jars, but never more so than this year, when the report was published right in the middle of the unfortunate confusion about who exactly we should have in mind each week as we “Clap for our Carers”.  Actually, on March 26th there was no confusion – it was to “Applaud our NHS heroes … the doctors, nurses, GPs, emergency workers and pharmacists battling Covid-19”.

 

On April 2nd, it was “those working through the crisis … all key workers who are keeping things running … teachers, cleaners, supermarket workers, delivery drivers … as well as the NHS staff who are working round the clock”.  I’m sure social and residential care workers were in there somewhere, but you’d have had to search hard for a direct reference. Still, they did get a collective thank you letter from Matt Hancock, who is now Health and Social Care Secretary, so that’s OK. Status problem solved, but surely only temporarily.

 

Chris Game is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is the joint-author of the best-selling introductory text on Local Government in the United Kingdom. Image credit: Number 10/Flickr,