Viewpoint: Beyond the numbers – the human cost of council cuts

New research from UNISON seeks to draw out what council cuts mean to those who access services and the workers who are delivering them. Nona Buckley-Irvine explains. 

Nearly every day, there’s a new story about cuts to local councils, funding shortfalls, and finances on the brink of collapse. With sector-wide agreement that councils simply cannot function without more money, the challenge is now persuading the Westminster government that local government funding is a central government issue.

At UNISON, we’ve launched new research which goes beyond the bare figures and into the real human cost of what cuts to councils mean. Individuals and communities who access council services are suffering – and the mental health of the workers delivering services is deteriorating as they try to deliver the best service possible in the face of inadequate resourcing.

Over 21,000 workers responded to our survey, and the picture is bleak. Nearly 80% of workers have no confidence in the future of local services, and 67% say that local residents aren’t receiving the help and support they need at the right time.

The help and support that residents aren’t getting is wide and varied. Stories of the crisis in care work are all too familiar now, with care workers struggling to deliver good quality care in pressurised time slots, with little resources. And beyond social care, services are in crisis.

“We are constantly refusing public assistance as there is no funding to help them,” one worker told us. Administrators dealing in council tax collection have described how cuts in their department mean they are behind on collections – hurting the public purse, and resulting in larger bills for residents.

Potholes in roads and broken bridges go unfixed as there isn’t the capacity to fix them. Environmental health workers have witnessed an increase in the rodent population, and refuse collection workers struggle to complete the bin rounds with fewer team members to do it.

Only 14 per cent of council workers are confident vulnerable residents are safe and cared for, with vulnerable people seen as “an expensive nuisance.” From cuts in Housing Related Support services that provide preventative services for vulnerable people, to the removal of Consumer Advice Services that support people at risk of exploitation, to cuts to social services that help vulnerable people manage their tenancies – the lack of funding in this area is putting people at risk.

Young people are unable to access libraries staffed purely by security guards and CCTV unless accompanied by an adult – compounding the cuts to youth service provision and removing yet another space for young people to access freely.

Cuts to children’s centres and Sure Start mean that it is only the most disadvantaged who are able to access children’s centres – removing access to a whole cross-section of society who previously depended on these centres for key support.

While local government workers try to make the best of the situation, their own mental health is suffering. Sickness rates are high as loyal public servants struggle to deliver in organisations that have experienced mass redundancies and unfilled vacancies, along with increased demands on their services.

Local councils provide the services that underpin the fabric of our communities and our homes. They play a vital role in the lives of everyone, which can often get taken for granted. But as the bins aren’t collected, the elderly aren’t cared for, and the young have dwindling access to services, the impact of these cuts will only become more evident. The message is painfully clear – councils are at breaking point and without additional funding things will only get worse.

We are calling on the UK government to urgently rectify this crisis by making additional funding available to local government in the Autumn Budget. We cannot wait for the 2019 Spending Review – the cost to individuals is too great. If the government is serious about communities and the lives of individuals, it will act.

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