A cut above

A cut above The impact of the cuts on trading standards has become clearer following a number of projects by TSI. Melissa Dring outlines the issues W e have known for some time that budget cuts cause severe problems for the service, but the trueimpact of five years austerity is finally becoming clear. The National Trading Standards Conversation, which was launched in summer 2013, gathered a host of anecdotal evidence about the effect austerity measures were having on trading standards services across Great Britain. Our Workforce Survey then delivered solid evidence of this, showing that the average budget for trading standards would decline by 40 per cent over the lifetime of this parliament (2010-2015). While it was clear that these cuts would have an impact on work on the ground, we needed independent evidence of the effects of budget reductions. Recent research from Institute for Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) now confirms that the number of trading standards staff has halved in five years, and estimates that services today are operating with fewer resources than in 2008/9 and earlier. This data is taken from a report TSI published in March from the University of Birmingham The Impact of Trading Standards in Challenging Times the result of a brief research project led by Professor John Raine at the (INLOGOV), which will be presented to the new government following the general election. The research was jointly commissioned by TSI and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in the summer of 2014 to gain a better understanding of the impact of cuts on the service, and provide evidence of the contribution of the service to governments aims and the UK economy. It is clear these cuts have led to drives for greater efficiency and effectiveness within stretched services the researchers identified a fundamental shift in ways of working over the last 10 to 15 years, with officers moving away from the use of routine inspections towards an intelligence-led approach. However, the report also notes the loss of expertise and experience through voluntary redundancy programmes, with services now having lost much of their resilience and specialist knowledge, as well as the relatively weak, and probably diminishing profile of the service both within local authorities and in the wider public eye. While this makes for depressing reading, it will not come as a great surprise to the trading standards community. More positive is the reports assessment of the value of trading standards activity. While the researchers were unable to identify a single figure to refresh the Office of Fair Tradings 6:1 cost/benefit ratio (Trading standards impact, Office of Fair Trading, 2009), they were confident of significant returns on investment: It was abundantly clear that measured outcomes, together with prospective impact, would greatly exceed the direct costs involved in each field of activity. Raine and his team put forward six recommendations for local and central government to address the issues identified in the report. We are pleased to see the recommendations include a call for local authorities to plan resources for trading standards based on an understanding of the performance, outcomes and impact of the work of trading standards. It has been clear to us that financial pressures in local government have increasingly resulted in salami slicing of services. The report supports the institutes position that an investment in preventative work by trading standards will bring savings to other departments, and that this should be considered during the budget allocation process. Nonetheless, given the trajectory of local government finance, it is clear that this would be nothing more than a sticking plaster to assuage the rapid draining of resources from local authority trading standards services. Moreover, despite the gains in efficiency that have resulted from the recent period of financial austerity, the research identified significant variations in spending per head and per unit workload (based on referrals from CACS) which, the researchers suggest, indicate remaining differences in efficiency. As the report states: The data suggests that economies of scale are significant for those departments in larger populated areas and with larger workloads. This conclusion leads the researchers to recommend that careful consideration be given to the advantages and disadvantages of different organisational models for the future of trading standards provision. Suggestions include shared services, wider regional grouping for specialist functions and buying in services from other councils or providers. TSI will give careful consideration to the recommendations in the report and work in partnership with BIS and other stakeholders to drive this forward. The evidence in the report will be invaluable as we look to design a vision for the future of the profession that makes the best use of available resources. An investment in preventative work by trading standards will bring savings to other departments, and this should be considered during the budget allocation process Credits Published You might also like Melissa Dring is director of policy at TSI. Tuesday 24 March, 2015 George Osborne on future cuts Ed Miliband on future cuts To share this page, click on in the toolbar