The cost of living crisis and scrutiny

Posted on 17/08/2022 by Megan Ingle.

For the first time on record, temperatures in the UK exceeded 40°C, though this isn’t the only record broken this year; inflation hit a new 40 year high, the energy price cap is the highest it’s ever been and as we head towards the autumn, the cost-of-living crisis is set to have a devastating impact on households and communities throughout the UK. The TUC have predicted that the biggest fall in real wages for 100 years looms, the average food bill is set to be around £454, energy bills could hit more than £5,000 early next year and 91% of adults in the UK have already reported an increase in their cost of living this summer. A combination of falling wages, extortionate energy prices and rising food costs will plunge households into hardship and hit those with existing disadvantage and vulnerability the hardest.

Local Authorities and the voluntary sector have so far delivered packages of support and fantastic services, and they will continue to do so, however LA’s will have very limited resources to deal with this exacerbating crisis, especially as many councils will still be recovering financially from Covid and more generally, a lack of government funding. As Government support falls way short for this crisis, LA’s will be expected to bear the brunt on the frontline.

Councils need to predict what the worst of the impact will be and how they can protect households from rising costs, especially targeting assistance to those who are most vulnerable. Although, the cross-cutting nature of the crisis will inevitably make it difficult for councils to fully predict what policy and support packages may look like.

Scrutiny committees and scrutiny more generally, can play an integral part during this ongoing crisis. Importantly, they are led by elected councillors who will have lived experience and an understanding of the needs of their communities. Scrutineers can use this first-hand knowledge to help feed into and develop policy – bringing to bear a wider range of perspectives and experiences than where Cabinet acts alone. In the midst of this crisis, similarly to COVID, the scrutiny function needs to understand and support the council and its partners as they engage with this situation, providing assistance in understanding complex problems. In order to do this, scrutiny members will require regular access to information about services and community need, so that they can escalate matters of particular concern and potentially expediate these decisions. In short, scrutiny provides an excellent opportunity to escalate and discuss at a council-wide level the concerns and challenges local people are talking to councillors about at surgeries – bringing those lived experiences to bear on strategic decision-making will help Cabinet, and senior officers, to design and direct support more appropriately.

In terms of work programmes, at this stage in the year, most councils’ scrutiny work programmes will already have been planned and in place well in advance. As ever, good work programmes are flexible, and it may be necessary to take a look at the work programme and carefully prioritise to take account of the crisis. Because of the systematic, cross-cutting nature of this cost-of-living crisis, this may involve removing and adding items as necessary, putting items on hold, as well as further delving into issues considering urgency and impacts. Similarly, discussions will need to have a clear outcome and objective, as there will likely be a lot of ground to cover, this should be aided by careful planning and a clear focus.

Scrutiny committees may take a more cross-partnership approach, be this with external partners or other areas in the council, to ensure that all those with a stake in supporting local people are brought into the conversation. It may be that issues cut across geographical boundaries in which case it may be fruitful to engage with other authorities. This could also be useful in looking at other LA’s best practice as well.

Public outreach will be paramount to learning how to best deal with and predict where support and measures can be targeted. Although scrutiny committees do not usually allow for public questions, this could be a facility which may be beneficial during the crisis – it may also be useful to think of a wider range of ways to make sure that the voice of the public, and especially more vulnerable people, can be heard at this time.