Friday, 14 February 2014

Council boss on managing budgets and welfare reforms

North Ayrshire Council Chief Executive Elma Murray has warned local authorities will continue to find the next few years “challenging”, but also described what local government officials are doing to address budget constraints and the impact of welfare reforms.

Ms Murray made her comments to Holyrood magazine as she stepped-down from the role as Chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) in Scotland. Speaking of how councils will attempt to deal with overall reductions in available funding as a result of central government cuts, Elma Murray said, “I think there will be more councils trying to set budgets over a longer period of time. Most of us profile our budgets and set indicative levels. A number of councils have now started much longer-term financial planning, with five and ten-year plans. Looking back a few years ago, that wouldn’t have been particularly usual.”

North Ayrshire’s most senior official said much of forward planning by local authorities was about “managing expectations, about helping elected members and communities to understand just how challenging the next few years are going to be and therefore while things might not feel too bad in a number of cases this year, there’s lots more we need to do.”

Ms Murray believes one of the big challenges around the current financial situation is “trying to change the focus from one where people are continually thinking about reductions in services and cuts and almost turning that on its head.” Citing North Ayrshire Council’s experience, the Chief Executive said, “Over £300 million is spent on local service delivery, so we have to ask what is the best form of local service delivery in our area, what are the priorities, what matters most to us. We are all much more conscious about mapping-out the way ahead and helping councillors and communities to think hard about what their long-term priorities are. The starting point is to look at the financial implications over the longer term and ask what does that mean for the type of communities we’re going to have and what services we’re going to need to support them.”

Setting-out the reasoning behind the new strategy being adopted, Elma Murray explained, “It’s about looking at what we can change so we’re not spending money on the things which don’t get a return for local people. Prevention and early intervention are very important. In the time I’ve been in local government, this has taken off as being a priority and everyone is focused on it. There won’t be a council now which doesn’t talk about prevention and early intervention, and who have a number of strands which are trying to make that happen much more rapidly.”

Reflecting on her year as Chair of SOLACE, Ms Murray said, “Being able to take on this role is probably one of the best opportunities I’ve had in my career.

“Welfare reform has featured in almost every single SOLACE meeting we’ve had over the year and the lead for that, David Dorward [Chief Executive of Dundee City Council], has done an outstanding job in making sure we’re all up to date about what’s happening.

“Welfare reform directly affects the people and communities in our local areas [and] our focus has been to look at the longer-term impact of welfare reform. This means we’re managing not just the immediate problems of there being less money in communities and people having difficulties paying their rent but also thinking about the longer-term position around getting more people into work and sustainable employment.

“A lot of the people affected are our most vulnerable people. A big job for councils is to help them understand what’s happening and what we can do to help them. We have done a lot of work knocking on doors and seeing people, helping them do calculations, explaining to them about the financial support the council can give and where else they can apply to for support.”

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