Headlines: November 17th, 2005

Local authorities across the country are on track to make the savings set out in the Treasury’s Gershon Review but it will be done at a huge price to public services and future council tax reviews, according to a nationwide study commissioned by Telewest Business. It was carried out following the first anniversary of the instruction to councils to achieve efficiency gains of at least 6.5 billion pounds by 2007-2008.Telewest Business says public services could be at risk because many council officials are feeling their way in the dark and need more guidance from Central Government, before they take drastic steps such as scaling back on services or culling staff.

The Local Council Efficiency Study involved polling 100 senior managers in local authorities across the United Kingdom and was conducted on behalf of Telewest by public sector research specialist Vanson Bourne. Almost three quarters of those polled were confident that their own authority was on track to meet the Gershon targets, but 61 per cent felt this could not be achieved without having an impact on public services. A quarter of councils believed it was impossible to meet targets without having an impact on council taxes.

A lack of Central Government advice was spotlighted by the study with 64 per cent of councils reporting they did not get enough guidance. The study also revealed that councils needed more autonomy from Whitehall to cut out red tape and to increase the rate of improvements in public services to drive the cash-releasing efficiency gains that were expected. Individual councils expected to make annual savings of 2.5 per cent and the onus was on them to boost internal efficiency while maintaining and running better services. These efforts are expected to release money and other resources that councils can reinvest in local services or retain to control council tax levels.

“Local council priorities have shifted with Gershon, from getting public services online to waking up about efficiency gains across the entire organisation,” said Christopher Small, Director of Public Sector at Telewest Business. “What’s shocking is that many local authorities say they are feeling their way in the dark. This implies a devastating risk to public services if more guidance is not given centrally,” he said.