Issue 14 - December 2016

PUBLIC ATTITUDES TOWARDS SPENDING CUTS - HAVE WE REACHED A TIPPING POINT?

By Sara Davison, Research Director, Ipsos Mori Scotland

Public sector spending cuts, and their impact on service provision, are dominant themes of current political and media discourse. On an almost daily basis we are told that the social care system is in crisis, the NHS has reached breaking point, or the prison system is creaking at the seams.

Yet for all its ubiquity, this pessimism does not appear to have found parallel expression among the public. Research conducted across Britain by Ipsos MORI in 2015 revealed under a quarter (23%) of adults believed that they and their family had been affected by government spending cuts, 10 percentage points fewer than in 2012. Indeed, three-quarters (76%), believed they had been little affected or unaffected, up from 59% over the same period.

In the recent Glasgow Household Survey, seven in ten respondents were satisfied with the services provided by Glasgow City Council and its partners; a figure that has remained remarkably stable over the last five years or so,

Data from Scotland paints a not dissimilar picture. In the recent Glasgow Household Survey, seven in ten respondents were satisfied with the services provided by Glasgow City Council and its partners; a figure that has remained remarkably stable over the last five years or so, amidst some of the most significant local authority cut backs in history (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Satisfaction with services provided by Glasgow City Council or its partners

To some extent, such findings may reflect growing public awareness, and perhaps even acceptance, of austerity. In Glasgow, 70% respondents agreed that ‘I am aware of the current financial challenges that affect the council’ and 55% that ‘I understand the financial challenges that affect the council’. Furthermore, nearly three in five (56%) agreed that ‘the council will have to change the way it delivers some of its services’.

So far so good for those charged with achieving the council’s eye-watering savings target of some c.£133 million over next two financial years.

Figure 2: Awareness and understanding of financial challenges affecting the council.

 

 

But the public are notoriously ambivalent, not to mention demanding, when it comes to service reform. True to form, despite acknowledging and even understanding the difficulties faced by the council, fewer than half (45%) of Glasgow respondents agreed that ‘the council will have to reduce or stop providing some services.’ Predictably, the figure was lower still among C2DE respondents – those with the greatest reliance on services – at 40% (compared to 50% of ABC1s).

Figure 3: Attitudes toward service cuts 

 
Closer examination of the results uncovers some added challenges for decision makers.

First, the services respondents were keenest to see protected were those that place the greatest financial burden on the council and its partners: social work and social care, education and childcare. But, of course, the financial outlook will likely make it tough for decision-makers to avoid further cuts to these services.

… notwithstanding the significance of self-interest, there was surprisingly little support for potential revenue raising measures that would involve taxing or charging ‘others’, for example, a city tax or museum admission charges for tourists

Second, as might be expected, there is a level of self-interest or ‘nimbyism’ underpinning some of these results, with, for example, parents keener to retain spending on schools, people in deprived areas supporting protection of social work spending and so on. Decision makers may find it difficult to balance these competing interests.

Third, and notwithstanding the significance of self-interest, there was surprisingly little support for potential revenue raising measures that would involve taxing or charging ‘others’, for example, a city tax or museum admission charges for tourists, despite the fact such measures are now commonplace throughout Europe and beyond.

Figure 4: Priority services for protection from spending cuts

 

In fact, the only areas where more than one in ten respondents were willing to countenance change in expenditure related to the running of the council and specifically to staffing levels, wages and expenses. But of course, these are the very areas where the remaining scope for cutbacks is limited. Over last decade Glasgow City Council has delivered more than £165 million of savings through its Service Reform Programme, which among other things has seen over two thousand employees leave the authority as part of an Early Retirement and Voluntary Severance initiative; and the number of city centre offices being reduced from 19 to six.

There are other efficiency measures that Glasgow and other decision makers can take, and are taking, to reduce costs, such as encouraging greater private and third sector provision, and greater integration of services, as in the case of adult health and social care. But these are long-term goals and, by themselves, are unlikely to deliver the scale of savings required.

In short, while the public remain optimistic about Scotland’s long-term economic prospects and appear to feel little affected by austerity measures to date, these attitudes could be set to change soon in the face of deeper, more tangible cuts than have yet come to pass.

Sara Davidson is Research Director at Ipsos Mori Scotland 

By Sara Davison, Research Director, Ipsos Mori Scotland

Issue 14 - December 2016

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