blog | 18.02.2020 | Annette Hastings

Keeping it clean! Using council data to understand the impact of austerity cuts on local environmental services

As we begin the tenth year of financial constraint for local government and public services more generally, what can the data hidden away in the internal systems of council services tell us about the impacts of budget cuts on services? Working with North Lanarkshire Council, UBDC colleagues Professor Annette Hastings and Dr Yang Wang, along with Dr Peter Matthews from the University of Stirling, aim to reveal exactly that.

Councils hold a wealth of data in their internal systems about their services, the people they provide these services to, and the neighbourhoods, towns and cities that we all live in. These data have expanded considerably in recent years, ironically just at the time that budget cuts have reduced the capacity and resources that councils can deploy to exploit its potential for delivering better services.

UBDC is working with colleagues in North Lanarkshire’s Environmental Assets Department to explore what these data can tell us about the impacts of austerity on environmental services across the council’s diverse settlements. To this end, a Data Sharing Agreement between the council and university was signed in October 2019. This allows ten years of data from the council’s Customer Relationship Management system to be safely transferred to UBDC’s secure server. Our expertise in socio-spatial forms of analysis will help us to focus in on what kinds of areas and socio-economic groups have been impacted by the service changes necessitated by austerity to a greater or lesser degree.

A working paper showing the first, very early, findings from the work was presented to the Council’s Audit and Scrutiny Panel in November 2019. It showed that in 2018, the council’s local environmental service budget was only 65% of its 2010 level.

Within the context of such severe budgetary constraint, the paper examined whether levels of citizen reporting of environmental problems had changed over time. As the chart on the left below shows, there was a 30% increase in the volume of citizens reporting incidents that required a service intervention between 2010 and 2018. These reports would include someone reporting litter, flytipping, dog mess and so on. We are currently investigating the reasons for this increase, but expect that it will relate to reductions in the planned, routine services that the council has had to make in order to deal with budget cuts.

Charts showing the number of issues reported by citizens and the time taken to respond

We also examined whether the council’s capacity to respond to citizen reports had changed during the austerity period. The chart on the right above shows that the number of days which the council took to sort out a problem increased quite sharply between 2010 and 2018 – from two days to six days. Again we are looking into the specific reasons for this change, as well as how the council has sought to use new mobile technologies to identify and resolve issues more quickly and using less staff resource.

The project is still in its early days and North Lanarkshire council are very keen to share a range of data with us: environmental quality data; citizen satisfaction surveys; even data about the location of bins.

We are particularly interested in using these exciting data sources to explore an important question for social justice – when austerity bites and staffing and services are cut back, do some kinds of neighbourhoods experience worse effects than others?

We also intend to use the work to bring longstanding academic research on unequal access to public services into the digital age. We want to explore if patterns of citizens’ interactions with local service providers lead to a skewed representation of the level of need for services and, crucially, how services respond to these representations. Our aim is to explore if detailed analysis of these various forms of data can be helpful to councils that are trying to ensure that those citizens who ‘shout the loudest’ don’t gain more than their appropriate share of services. We plan to share learning from the project about what these data can be used for in presentations and workshops starting in spring 2020.

Nicole Paterson, Head of Environmental Assets at North Lanarkshire Council, told us she has found the objective look at historical data very revealing:

"It has recently assisted in reporting to the Council’s Audit & Scrutiny Panel the changing face of the service over time, work which given the changing nature of service delivery, Officers within the service often don’t get the opportunity to step back from day to day tasks to do. It has highlighted to Members the service constraints and opportunities.

"The early work has highlighted the substantial decrease in funding to the service over the last ten years and with the help of UBDC analysing trends and resultant differences in the service delivered to customers day to day.

"Reflection on the historical analysis presented has enabled the service to more objectively consider the proper targeting of resources going forward, and integrate the learning into opportunities to roll out new technologies and practices within North Lanarkshire’s communities.

"We look forward to the further work in relation to street cleansing and deprivation, gaining an understanding of what that will mean to service delivery opportunities within North Lanarkshire, ensuring resources are targeted to make North Lanarkshire the place to live, learn, work, invest and visit."

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