Last week the Welsh Government and Welsh Local Government Association held a joint conference entitled “the challenges and opportunities for local service delivery in Wales”, looking at the impact of austerity on public services.
The Minister for Finances made clear to all those present that the last five years of cuts have been difficult to deal with, but the next four years are going to be even harder. It was stressed that to protect the services councils and others provide – that we all use and too often take for granted – is going to require radical change.
It struck me that the findings from our recent report under our delivering with less programme of work on leisure services echoes these sentiments.
What’s the big deal with Leisure?
Leisure is a discretionary service and not protected from the cuts councils have to make. Leisure and recreation are also crucial components of a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Leisure can encourage personal growth and self-expression and provide increased learning opportunities. For many people, participation in leisure and recreation also improves their physical and mental health. The Chief Medical Officer for Wales in her most recent Annual Report, notes the importance of physical activity in dealing with public health concerns.
Our report found that overall, council revenue budgets have fallen by around 10 percent in the last four years and the reduction in spending on sports and recreation services has been marginally higher with a 10.5 percent cut. Leisure spending has fallen from £171 million in 2009-110 to £153 million in 2014-15.
The level of subsidy required to provide leisure services – the difference between how much it costs to provide a service and how much money is raised in income and grants to cover these costs – fell by 15.2 per cent.
The amount councils fund services after income fell from £110 million in 2009-10 to £93.3 million in 2014-15, with 18 councils also reducing how much they spend on leisure services. This suggests that some councils are improving the efficiency of their services.
However, it is not that straight forward. The largest reductions in expenditure have been in councils who have changed their model of delivering their major leisure facilities, especially those who have transferred to Trusts. On average, we estimate that these councils have made annual recurring savings of £2.4 million.
How to face the challenges in the future?
We also found that many councils have been slow to consider alternatives to direct provision and not all of the options open to councils have been reviewed when they have considered changing how they deliver their leisure services. Given the current financial climate, this is a concern and suggests that some services are not providing value for money.
In addition, councils are still not good at engaging with citizens when planning changes in leisure provision. Only 29 per cent of councils believe that they have been informed about where their council plans to make savings and reduce expenditure and only 24 percent of the citizens who responded felt that their council had effectively told them about changes to leisure services since April 2013.
At the recent conference both the Finance Minister and the Minister for Public Services have made clear that councils need to change how they do things and be more prepared to take risks and make tough decisions. Our report highlights that by doing things differently, services for the public can be protected and delivered at less cost for the council. But it does need strong and effective leadership within councils to do this. If that does not happen then many of these important services are going to disappear which will have a greater impact on our health and well-being.
Now is the time to step up and make the tough calls, as not doing this does not bear thinking about.
Nick Selwyn is a Local Government Manager at the Wales Audit Office, with responsibilities for our programme of all-Wales studies. He has worked for the WAO for eight years in a variety of roles and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Housing.