Scrutiny and the cost of living

Posted on 04/10/2022 by Ed Hammond.

Scrutiny and the cost of living

Although the cost of living crisis is dominating political conversation this week – especially in light of the rise of the energy price cap – for us in local government this is a crisis that has been going on for years now.

For more than a decade councils have had to grapple with the challenges of a population increasingly struggling to make ends meet. The steady rise in the number of people forced to make use of food banks is evidence enough of this. The phenomenon of the “working poor” has existed for many years – it was masked in part by the existence pre-2010 of tax credits. Their abolition, and the introduction of Universal Credit, have produced more and more complex challenges for the so-called “precariat”, for whom the so-called “living” wage increasingly can’t cover the basic costs of survival.

This is an inherently political problem – it isn’t just a “thing” that has happened because of bad luck. Like all political problems it has political solutions – different policy choices open to us at both national and local level.

We have noted before that uniquely multifaceted challenges – things like climate change, or the need for a focus on equality, diversity and inclusion – present opportunities for scrutiny. Scrutiny’s broad responsibility to look at issues affecting an authority’s area, or the area’s inhabitants, allow it to carry out bold work that cuts across institutions and to understand life as it is lived by local people.

And the cost of living impacts on local people will definitely be profound, and not limited to one organisation to deal with.

How can councils’ overview and scrutiny functions deal with this issue?

Understanding the nature of the impact is the first step. Demographic data will help to identify which local people will be particularly affected, and in what way. The area might have a particularly elderly population, or a high population living in private rented accommodation – it may have a high of young families, or a large transient population. While it is dangerous to generalise too much it is possible to identify certain groups of local people with certain characteristics who may be most at risk.

There are two ways to explore how to use this information to help people better that I want to focus on (other methods do, of course, exist!).

The first is more traditional. Councillors will be feeling the pressure their residents experience through their surgeries, and through issues which occasionally crop up when door-knocking. Some of these experiences can be brought to bear on the scrutiny process; scrutiny can also of course speak directly to local people. But this does present the usual challenges – the risk that public engagement exercises are taken the wrong way, that people who engage are not “representative” of the wider population, and so on. This should not put you off – no engagement exercise is perfect.

Engagement here, really, is about listening as much as it is about setting up ways for the public to “engage”. Conversations about the worries local people experience will be being had across the area – scrutiny just needs to be in the places where those conversations are happening. Councillors, in their communities, will be aware of where these conversations happen – in real life and virtually.

The second approach is perhaps more rigorous from an evidential perspective, though perhaps too “wonkish” for some tastes. The use of personas in service and policy design has been mainstream across the private and public sector for some time. Personas are fictional characters that you can “design” that have the characteristics of those you want to serve or help. You might design a set of personas, each representing a broad area of local community need, but each with a range of complex and overlapping needs: q young private renter on the council housing waiting list, working full time and with sole parent to school age children, struggling to cope with rising energy bills, childcare costs and rent increases while their pay stays stagnant. An elderly couple in social rented accommodation, one of whom cares for the other. A young person living in an HMO with no dependents, but with low skills and in precarious employment.

The these personas can be used to try to understand how these people might need, use and experience services – from a traditional, consumer perspective – and how they might want to influence how those services are designed as citizens. Would these people have the time, inclination and energy to bring their concerns to the council – or expect support from the council or other institutions – or will authorities have to think of better ways to draw them and their needs out? It is worth remembering here that one of the things we learned during the pandemic was just how much hidden need their was around social care, community support and other vulnerabilities – and that local mutual aid activity provided a means of building support anchored in the local community. There may be a lesson here for our response to the cost of living crisis.

Personas – or the lived experience of local people – or both – will make the policy choices that councils have come alive and feel more direct and immediate. They will make those choices and those priorities more tangible and will help us to understand the link between decisions made in respect of a range of very different services.

Nowhere will this play out more than in the approach that councils take to budget decision-making in the coming months. In early November we will be putting out more information about budget scrutiny and financial oversight – which is sure to play an important role as the cost of living crisis continues to bite. For now we are very keen to hear examples from scrutiny practitioners about the expectations you have for how scrutiny will help to tackle the cost of living crisis – in particular we welcome guest contributors to our blog. If you do want to contribute, or if you just want to share your thoughts and approaches more informally, please contact Meg Ingle at


About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.