Funding Changes for Local Authorities – Challenges and Opportunities

As part of its efforts to decrease the national deficit, Government has been steadily reducing the amount of funding for local authorities since 2010.  In this context the National Trust is committed to playing our part in securing the future of the special places which matter to people most.

Prior to the May General Election, the Local Government Association (LGA) highlighted that there had been a fall in core central government funding for local authorities by roughly 40 percent. The 2015 Budget made it clear that funding reductions would continue until 2019-20. The LGA predicts that spending reductions following a similar pattern as the one since 2010 would leave local authorities facing a £2.4 billion funding gap by the end of the decade.

Why should this matter to the National Trust? The Trust is responsible not only for conservation of tangible heritage such as houses, buildings, sites and monuments, but also for protecting land and landscapes as a major landowner of over 250,000 hectares of land. In order to protect the natural beauty of this land we work with key decision makers through the planning system, encourage sustainable farming, protect green spaces, and on a few occasions act as a developer.  Across all of these areas, the Trust has come to rely on local government being adequately resourced and having the right levels of expertise to help support our work, and what we stand for more widely as a charity.

When many people think of the National Trust, they think of stately homes (and perhaps tea and cake), which is natural because we responded to the threat to an important part of the nation’s heritage by saving historic houses during the 1930s. People will also be aware of our Neptune Coastline Campaign in the 1960s and our ongoing efforts which have seen the protection of 775 miles of the UK’s coastline for everyone to enjoy. In developing our new strategy we’ve challenged ourselves to think about what the nation needs from us in the 21st century, against a backdrop of the financial crisis.

Our co-founder, Octavia Hill’s original cause was focused primarily on protecting and improving the quality of places that people live in.  Protection of open spaces, outdoors and nature were fundamental to her beliefs:

“The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and I believe the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs common to all”.

Family walking in Hatfield Forest, Essex. ©National Trust Images/Britainonview/Rod Edwards

Family walking in Hatfield Forest, Essex. ©National Trust Images/Britainonview/Rod Edwards

This cause is of central importance to the Trust, and one aspect of our 10 year strategy thinks about how we can play our part in looking after the everyday places that matter to people most – which are often green spaces or local heritage in our towns and cities.

A lack of funding to local authorities means councils have to prioritise funding to services they are required to fund. This means that spending on healthcare and adult social care has been largely protected, whilst other services such as housing, culture and leisure, and transport have seen significant budget reductions. It is projected that funding for parks services may fall by 60% or more by 2020 and planning departments have seen budgets fall by 40% in the last few years. The level of expertise in local government planning departments has also suffered with, for instance, only one third of planning authorities having access to an ‘in house’ ecologist, and 90% of planners lacking ecological qualifications. We are concerned that over time this will have an effect on planning decisions and could therefore impact on National Trust places and on other special places more widely.

However, whilst these challenges are significant, they also create opportunities to find different models. So our strategy until 2025, ‘Playing our Part’, commits us to think about how we might help. As one of the largest conservation organisations, we have access to expert advice and the support of 4.3 million members and 62,000 volunteers. This means there are opportunities for the Trust to support other owners of local heritage who do not have the same assets available.  Additionally, the Trust is taking the opportunity to work even more closely with local authorities and share experience of caring for special places.

Local and central Government will also need to play its part in helping to find new long term models to fund planning, heritage, nature and green space services – which are all critical if we are to have cherished, unique and distinctive communities. We look forward to working with them to help this happen.

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