Westminster’s Local Government ‘Expert’ has concluded the financial predicament faced by councils is due to their mismanagement. How very convenient! To be fair, there are obvious examples of incompetence and lack of due diligence. Some councils set up arms-length, usually housing, companies which collapsed in debt. Others took the ostrich approach (similar to Devon County Council) and just hoped it would all go away. Birmingham’s failure to address the equal pay settlement is probably the best example. Perhaps the most jaw dropping is how councils were allowed to speculate with £100’s millions of taxpayers money on property. What on earth were the auditors doing at these councils? Asleep at the wheel or what?

It's right for the Local Government Expert to highlight these failings but what’s going to happen to stop it happening again? As the cliché goes, hindsight is a wonderful thing, we’re all wise after the event. Local councils spend £1000s on external auditors. They are meant to give the independent scrutiny on councils’ financial wellbeing. The accounts are audited, the bills are paid, the boxes are ticked and everything’s fine until it isn’t. I’d certainly add external auditors to my collection of chocolate teapots.

Most importantly, we have to ask why were councils behaving in such a cavalier and irresponsible manner? One obvious answer is out of sheer desperation. As government tightened the belt, and more services were handed to local authorities something had to give. Of course, services can be delivered more effectively and efficiently but that will only take you so far. The sheer depth of cuts and the increased responsibilities meant councils had to act. A smaller cake will only go so far.

South Hams District Council was no different. Council tax and other fees and charges, including car parking, have increased while services are cut. Less street sweeping and public toilets closed are examples.

At the same time there were wholesale organisational changes. Some more successful than others. The ‘shared services’ with West Devon Borough Council has worked well. We save £100,000s every year on senior officers’ salaries by sharing the chief executive, chief financial officer, directors and others. The reorganisation of the planning department has been a different story.

Against the wishes of councillors, the service was restructured. Planning officers took redundancy with many going to work for neighbouring authorities. In a highly competitive market, we have struggled to find replacements continually playing catch up. What is particularly frustrating, is the main architects of this shambles are nowhere to be seen or swanned off to bigger and better things, rewarded for failure. Seems to be about par for the course nowadays.

Fortunately, as a council we have weathered this particular storm but who knows what government will do next. It’s a bit rich for government ministers to point the finger of blame at local authorities. What about getting your own house in order? You can’t tell councils to stop blaming external factors when you spend your whole time doing exactly that. We all know we live in turbulent times. We understand that times are tough but that includes everyone, not just government.

When central government gets into financial trouble, it has a number of levers to pull that local government just doesn’t have. No borrowing for councils when the books don’t balance. No presses to print money when there’s a cash flow crisis. You can call it quantitative easing but it’s printing money. Councils might not be perfect, but I don’t think government is in any position to tell us how to do it. Maybe as an example of how not to do it would be as far as any advice should go.