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What can you do about local authority cuts?

Local authorities across England are facing higher demand and budget reductions.

One in five say they will issue a Section 114 notice soon, effectively making them bankrupt and handing control of budgets to external commissioners. But many more will cut budgets before issuing a Section 114 notice to avoid losing control.

Local services, contracts and grants will be affected. As will valued community assets such as buildings and parks. What can you do about it, and how can Locality help?

What could happen if my council is in trouble?

Knowing your council is in financial difficulty can be a worrying experience. Below we set out how you can respond, but first it is important to understand what might happen. From our experience working with local authorities and community organisations, here are some of the things you could see happening:

  • Cuts, or threats of cuts, to council-funded contracts and grants, and council-run services.
  • Auctioning off buildings and spaces, perhaps with little notice.
  • Increased levels of need, particularly in disadvantaged communities, and increased demand for services provided by charities and community groups.
  • Reduced communication and joint working with charities and voluntary organisations (due to capacity, morale or restrictions placed on officials).
  • Commissioning may be scaled up in an effort to reduce short-term costs, making it harder for smaller organisations to bid.
  • If the council has issued a Section 114 notice, it may be hard to engage with the appointed commissioner.

As a first step, make sure you talk to the council early to see how any services, assets, contracts and grants you are involved in might be affected. You may need to review your income streams to see how dependent your organisation is on council funding and seek to diversify your income.

At Locality we are experts in helping community organisations adapt and thrive - speak to us to see how we can help you.

Setting up a campaign

When the council is making budget cuts, you may feel powerless to have an impact. But charities and community groups are a trusted and powerful part of the local community. You should consider working with other organisations and representative bodies to influence the decisions the council makes. You should:

  • Decide whether an existing organisation or alliance is best placed to represent different voices, or whether to create a new body made up of key voices.
  • Agree roles for individuals and organisations, and consider creating a terms of reference or constitution.
  • Set up a single way for others to make contact and sign up for updates.
  • A name, website and even logo can help raise awareness.
  • Engage a wide range of voices from the sector, especially those representing minoritised communities.
  • Consider a large meeting or summit to help a wide range of groups shape the approach.
  • Involve local funders early. They may be willing to invest in the campaign.

There is more information here about setting up a new project or organisation. Save Birmingham is a good example of a campaign set up in response to local authority budget cuts by Birmingham City Council.

Communicating with the council

You may need to be proactive about engaging with the council about budget cuts, and normal routes may be harder to use. Try to agree a single path for communications with the council to avoid confusion. You are aiming to provide united voice for local charities and groups which also reflects the sector’s diversity.

Make clear that you are there to help the council and emphasise your role within the community and what you are already doing to help local people. Maintain a balance in your communications - you need to be honest and make your case, but also understand the position the council is in. Remember that some communications may need to be confidential to allow options to be explored.

Engaging about service cuts

Council-funded services run by charities and community organisations generally come in two forms: contracts and grants. Either may be reduced in size, not renewed, or even terminated early as part of cost-cutting measures.

In some cases, contracts may be combined and increased in size - by seeking economies of scale local authorities hope to reduce short-term costs but this can stop smaller organisations from bidding.

When communicating with the council about service cuts:

  • Show how the service aligns with the council’s plans.
  • Emphasise the service’s role in early help and prevention, and how this reduces pressure on other public services and therefore costs.
  • Push for the sector to have a role in deciding commissioning priorities going forward.
  • Ensure the sector, including smaller organisations, will be eligible to compete for any new contracts or apply for grants.

Engaging about asset sales

It is not uncommon for councils to sell buildings or spaces in response to budget cuts. Our 'Save our Spaces' campaign found that 4,000 are sold off each year. There are many arguments you can use to try to convince the council to transfer the asset into community ownership, or to keep running the asset themselves, including:

  • Many sold assets end up unused and undeveloped.
  • Assets can end up owned by organisations or individuals with no connection to the area.
  • Valued buildings and spaces may fall into disrepair, causing issues for communities.

Explore whether community ownership could be an option to stop the asset being lost forever. It can have major beneficial impacts beyond any price that might be achieved. For example, community ownership can attract more investment in the area, it can help community organisations sustain or grow their activities, and it can create services and opportunities for local people.

There are two main mechanisms that can make it easier for communities to take ownership of local authority assets:

  • The Community Right to Bid, where certain assets can be nominated as Assets of Community Value, providing community organisations with a time limited window of opportunity to develop plans and bid to purchase them.
  • Community Asset Transfer, where a local authority decides to transfer the asset directly to a local community organisation.

Some top tips for exploring community ownership:

Encourage the council to look at each asset individually, and to provide as much time as possible to allow community ownership to be explored and communities to respond

Encourage organisations to nominate Assets of Community Value, through an information campaign, providing guidance and a link to the relevant section of the council website.

Target relevant organisations, for example those currently using the building or in the geographical area. The council could even give them preference when selling the asset.

If you do make progress, push for as long as possible to develop plans and raise any finances needed. If the council agrees to sell or transfer a property on a long leasehold basis, push for as long as possible to give you the best chance to raise capital investment.

We can help you understand the options for taking ownership and how to manage community-owned spaces. Please get in touch.

Get in touch

We are experts in community assets, service transformation, funding programmes, community engagement and evaluation.

We want to hear from you. We can support Locality members and others with evidence, tools and advice about:

  • Campaign governance and planning
  • Engaging with the local authority and the wider community
  • Promoting your campaign and finding funding
  • Taking on and managing local buildings and spaces
  • Transforming services

Tools, information and resources

My Community
Understanding community ownership
Our hub of resources designed to help you protect, save, or manage a community space or community asset in your local area. Includes guidance on funding, routes to ownership, legal options, business planning and more.
Indoor swimming pool
Guidance on community asset transfer - for community organisations
Guidance on community asset transfer - for local authorities
Local authorities
Guidance on community asset transfer - for local authorities
How to set up a project in your community
My Community
How to set up a project in your community
A step-by-step guide to getting started with a new project in your community.
A beginner’s guide to finding funding for your project
A beginner’s guide to finding funding for your project
This Convention 2022 workshop, devised primarily for smaller or newer organisations at the start of their funding journey, included top tips from funders and those who have received funding on where to look, what to do and how to make your case stand out from the rest.
Published: 16 February 2023
Our Influencing work
Save our Spaces
Locality’s campaign to save public buildings and spaces. For all of us. Forever. Save our Spaces is Locality’s campaign to save much-loved publicly owned buildings and spaces from being sold off for private use.
Local authorities
Partnership working between local authorities and the voluntary and community sector
A toolkit to support councils to develop better relationships with community organisations, developed by Locality and the Local Government Association
Local authorities
Local authorities
We can help local authorities transform public services and build stronger communities by investing in local people and working with community organisations. We've worked with over 80 local authorities, providing paid specialist advice, peer learning and support to help their communities thrive.
Local authorities
Keep it Local
Local authorities can transform public services by prioritising local partnerships and investment.