Comment & Opinion: Using technology to plug the council funding gap

By Richard Talbott, Head of Marketing, StarTraq

The Covid crisis will force councils to make ‘deep cuts’ to services. Councils warn of a budget shortfall. UK councils fear bankruptcy amid Covid-19 costs. Just some of the headlines from the past year that reflect the funding disaster facing UK Councils. 

Costs for Councils have risen due to new Covid-19 responsibilities. For example, the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly in adult social care, support for those shielding from home and helping with the ‘test and trace’ programme.

On the revenue side, households and businesses are struggling to pay council tax and business rates. Income has also been reduced from parking, and culture and leisure services, as various lockdowns have caused empty high streets, leisure centres and tourist attractions.

The Government have released emergency funding for Councils, but it will not be enough to plug the funding gap.  Local residents are already seeing hikes in council tax and reduction in services.

Now more than ever, Councils need to look for technological solutions to help balance the books.

The Covid crisis has seen a monumental shift to home working. Investing in cloud-based software applications will mean that Council staff can truly embrace a flexible working future. This will reduce costs for office space and provide a better work/life balance for staff.

The digital transformation of local authority services is also essential. Individuals and businesses should be able to purchase Council services, licences and permits online. Astoundingly, printing off a form and sending a cheque is still happening in many Councils. In this digital age, people should be able to order and pay for any Council service online from a smartphone.

Councils should start thinking like digital entrepreneurs; they cannot just rely on taxes and parking charges for the bulk of their revenue.  They should use technology combined with practical initiatives to provide services better than the private sector, for example, smartphone parking apps, Council-run MOT centres and waste services.

Permits and licensing applications need to be streamlined.  Businesses should be able to create an account online and pay for any permit required for their business, e.g. skips, scaffolding and outdoor seating permits.  Also, Council officers should have smartphone apps to inspect licences in the field and issue Fixed Penalty Notices for non-compliance.

Green waste bins are another area; many councils are already charging a yearly fee to collect garden waste.  For mainly political reasons, other Councils do not want to charge for this service, but is it fair for someone who lives in a flat to be contributing to the collection of green waste through their council tax?

Councils need to fund their essential services through taxation. However, they can reinvent themselves as customer-facing businesses where buying a service or licence from them is as easy as ordering a pizza online.

StarTraq Limited provides digital transformation services to the public sector for licensing and enforcement.

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