The sector needs to reflect the trust placed in us by the public

By Paul O'Brien | 03 December 2020
  • Paul O'Brien

‘To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved’

…So said Scottish poet and author, George MacDonald.  Which is perhaps a fitting descriptor of the relationship between councils and the public. Whilst councils may never be regarded with the same wholehearted affection in which they hold the NHS, our most recent survey with Survation, finds that four and a half times as many members of the public trust their local council over Government, when it comes to decisions about local areas. It doesn’t fare much better for beleaguered ministers with the public saying they are nine times more likely to trust a Councillor over a minister. 

So, if this highest compliment of ‘trust’ is evidenced by the public what is driving it? Well for starters the work done by local councils is very visible in local areas. Repairing roads, emptying bins, cutting grass, sweeping streets, alongside providing school meals, maintaining sports pitches and keeping streets well-lit, are all what we regard as ‘neighbourhood services’ and are highly dependent on revenue spend. The very local public services that make places better. Indeed, chancellor Rishi Sunak, announcing the £4bn ‘levelling up’ fund talked about ‘the infrastructure of everyday life’ which is complimented by these local services which the public directly experience each day, though of course the chancellor’s announcement is a capital fix and doesn’t touch revenue need.

What our survey also found was that public satisfaction, across these services, is outstanding with 79% being satisfied with the way their local council key-workers kept essential services going during the pandemic. This satisfaction was also mirrored in spending, with 79% of the public also wanting to see more Government money spent in local areas, by councils. It has also been a bumper year for frontline services with public satisfaction levels growing in individual services topped by parks, school meals, waste and recycling and street lighting.

In some senses there is a Yin and Yang factor to the trust and spend priorities. Getting local services right will improve satisfaction and generate that trust in spending more in local areas. What can’t be ignored is the ‘COVID factor’. The survey was conducted in mid-October as the UK emerged, albeit fleetingly, from the most restrictive measures of lockdown. The public had experienced first-hand the value of local parks as their space in which to walk, exercise or have fun with the kids. Equally when many public services were forced to stop providing things councils kept going. Domestic refuse and recycling collections just kept on-going - moving even more recycling and waste than before, including glass bottles and aluminium cans (the public know how to do lockdown!). Whilst leisure centres were forced to close, visible operations to support the most vulnerable, swung into place, with food banks and support networks. Thankfully in the majority of cases the initial concerns about burial space and crematoria capacity did not materialise. The dead and their families were treated with dignity by local council bereavement services.      

So, will this public trust in councils continue? To use a lawyer’s response ‘it all rather depends’.  Our public opinion poll sits alongside some other data explored by APSE Performance Networks, on the impact of COVID on frontline service finances. Expenditure has increased alongside demand. This has translated into increased spend in areas like refuse, with a need for additional fleet to maintain social distancing for the workforce. In parks the increased footfall, coupled with income losses from car-parks, events and cafes, and a need for additional resources to increase litter-collections and public safety measures. In school catering the glitches in the free school meals voucher scheme, alongside growth in universal credit increased demand, often without resources in welfare catering. However, for many of these services they have barely emerged from the age of austerity and yet, the shortfalls of COVID-funding for councils may well fall upon the shoulders of these very ‘local infrastructure’ services that the chancellor is seeking to support.

So if the public is to retain its trust in councils, councillors and council services our advice is to reflect that trust placed in us by the public, in local and national decision making on spending priorities. The public message is loud and clear. They like, value and trust local neighbourhood level services. We need their trust to be repaid in the resources we give to these vital local services moving forward in the post-COVID world.

Paul O’Brien is Chief Executive of APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence)

The full survey results conducted by Polling Company Survation can be found here.

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