In the past few weeks, we have learnt that Suffolk County Council is facing challenges in delivering a balanced budget, and Ipswich Borough Council’s property company reported an annual financial loss of over £6 million.

The fact that Mid-Suffolk District Council will shortly be increasing rents for some of its poorest residents - social housing tenants - by 7.8%, which is almost double the rate of inflation, in order to fund its new green spending commitments has gone largely unremarked. 

So how should we analyse the financial and service performance of our local councils?

How can residents make comparisons with how Suffolk’s councils are performing compared to councils elsewhere in the country? 

Last year, the newly formed and independent Office for Local Government (Oflog) set up a dashboard which allows residents to assess the relative performance of their own council as well as their council’s financial health.

Let’s take two of our local councils – Suffolk County Council and Ipswich Borough Council and see how they compare on a few key performance indicators. Starting with Ipswich Borough Council.

Ipswich Star: Ipswich has some of the highest Band D council tax rates in England, says Dan PoulterIpswich has some of the highest Band D council tax rates in England, says Dan Poulter (Image: Archant)

Ipswich has some of the highest Band D council tax rates in England – far above the average –but relatively low council tax collection rates, with council tax going uncollected from 1 in 20 homes compared to about 1 in 50 in East Suffolk (a council with many comparable population demographics to Ipswich in the towns of Felixstowe and Lowestoft).

This suggests a degree of inefficiency in council processes and management at Ipswich compared to other local authorities.  

If we drill into the data for waste management, Ipswich has an exceptionally low recycling rate of just 32.8% compared to a median value across all local councils of 41.9%.

In terms of recycling contamination rate, Ipswich also fares poorly with a value of 10.9% of its recycled waste being contaminated which compares to a median value across all councils of only 5.5%.  

So, in summary, Ipswich residents are charged much more in council tax but in return receive a lower quality service in some core service areas including household recycling in comparison to other similar local councils in Suffolk and elsewhere in the country.   

So, what about Suffolk County Council?

Total debt as a percentage of core spending power is high at 135. % and with relatively low rates of ring-fenced financial reserves.

The total number of complaints per 100,000 population is also high at 4.3, and it may be a fair assumption that many of these complaints relate to the County Council’s running of the SEND service.

Suffolk County Council has the financial warning lights flashing red, and a higher than expected proportion of residents dissatisfied with its services than would be expected.  

I am sure the response of some council officers and councillors reading this will be to demand more money, but that would be rather missing the point.

The Oflog dashboard compares the relative performance of local councils and in the examples of financial and service performance that I have given above, Suffolk County Council and Ipswich Borough Council are outliers.

Many other councils are better.   

It was significant recently that Lord Morse, the Chair of Oflog recently stated that Councils in England are going bankrupt because of poor financial management and not a lack of money.

He stated that he could say “quite definitely” that all councils that had gone into special measures had failures in governance and were primarily responsible for their own financial shortfalls.

He added that although he had listened “respectfully” to the sector’s concerns about money, there was “a lot to be done” to improve the way in which councils managed their finances to prevent them from getting into difficulty.  

I understand that in due course, Oflog will be looking to incorporate the performance of council run property companies like Ipswich Borough Assets which lost over £6 million last year. 

I have long held concerns about the ability of local councils to run property companies. Councillors and Council Officers often lack the financial skills or background to oversee asset company management and there is a good argument that taxpayer’s money should not be gambled on the commercial property market.   

Thanks to Oflog, we shall soon have even greater transparency of local Government finances and service delivery.

Residents will be better placed to hold their councillors and council officers to account for the quality of their local services and how much council tax they are paying for the services they receive.