Will Northamptonshire be the last council to go bankrupt? We’ve crunched the numbers

Birmingham Town Hall. Image: Very Quiet/Wikipedia Commons.

In two months’ time the UK will hit the 8th anniversary of the Conservative’s austerity programme – an economic strategy that has survived three elections, two Prime Ministers, and several missed deficit elimination deadlines.

Much of that burden has fallen on England’s councils. In early March, the National Audit Office released a report which showed that government funding for local authorities has dropped by 49 per cent in real-terms since 2010, resulting in a 29 per cent drop in spending power.

Since austerity began, councils have been protesting the squeeze in funding from central government – and in February, the first domino finally fell.  By enforcing a section 114 notice, Northamptonshire County Council became the first local authority in over 20 years to effectively declare itself bankrupt, banning all new expenditure in order to hit its legally required balanced budget.  Now, the question may not be if more councils may follow suit, but when.

Austerity may not be on everybody’s lips anymore, but its effects are still rippling throughout the country. Future reductions in funding have led the Local Government Association to project an overall spending gap of over £5bn by 2020, meaning councils will be scrambling to cut costs and generate additional income in order to fulfil their services. Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, has given a bleak warning: “Through my own conversations with chief financial officers, I have heard a number of warnings that councils may soon face untenable budget positions…The warning signs have been plain to see for a number of years.”

Future cuts come at a time when council services face enormous demographic pressures resulting in increased demand. There were 1.8m new requests for adult social care in 2015-16. Meanwhile 23.1 per cent of children are expected to be living in absolute poverty by the end of the decade, a rise from 17 per cent in 2009.

Without an increase in funding, it is difficult to see how councils will be able to meet these demands. Both the adult social care and children’s services departments take up huge portions of a council’s yearly budget. Research from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found that over 100 councils in England are known to have overspent on their Children’s Services budget this year. Add to the mix the slowdown in projected GDP growth, due to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, and councils are facing a difficult task to cover financial gaps in their medium term financial planning.

So how big is the gap? The effect on some of England’s cities is as follows:

  • Manchester City Council identified a funding gap of £60m between 2017 and 2020, due to be eliminated through savings, a large part coming out of the adult social care budget.
  • Liverpool has identified a budget gap of £90.3m up to 2020, proposing more cuts which will help bring its overall budget savings to £420m between 2011 and 2020.
  • Bristol has identified a £46.7m gap which will require further savings on top of £33m in cuts this year.
  • Birmingham has already accumulated budget savings of nearly £650m since 2010. and has identified a further £123m in cost-cutting measures needed by 2022. The city’s financial report warned, "Consequently Birmingham City Council of the future will look very different from the one we had before austerity began." Worryingly, the council arrived at this figure after taking into account a plunge into budget reserves by £30m next year, and has admitted that future savings are becoming harder and harder to identify. Most ominously of all, the report announced, "the City Council has also had to consider whether, in some instances, it can no longer afford to provide its current level of service."

The problem is not just isolated to England: the devolved governments also have councils struggling to balance future budgets. Cardiff City Council is facing a £73.5m gap between 2018 and 2021, to be partially offset by £52m in savings. Edinburgh has identified £151m in savings to be found by 2023.

Then we come to Leeds City Council. In July last year the council produced a report projecting a £30.5m spending gap between 2019 and 2021. After planning future council tax increases up to the maximum cap limit, as well as millions in savings, the council stated: “At this stage it has not been possible to identify sufficient savings or income generation opportunities with which to entirely close the gap in the Council’s finances over the next three years.”

Since then, the Council has not come up with any fresh ideas, and the gap has more than doubled. It now stands at £71.9m.  A Leeds Council spokesperson said:

“We are absolutely committed to protecting frontline services, particularly for those who need our support most. To balance those burgeoning costs, we continue to look at ways to make the most of our limited funds and our investment in staff.  

“By targeting resources at preventative services, the council has ensured that the impact of changing demand and demography (which has resulted in significant cost pressures in many other councils) has been contained, for instance within children’s services and adult social care.”

It is worth noting that the council has managed to keep every single children’s centre in Leeds operating, with a commitment to carry on with no closures. That comes in stark contrast to the national picture: over 500 centres have closed in the UK since 2010.


In facing these budget pressures, one alarming trend has emerged: the NAO revealed that one in 10 local authorities could run out of reserves within the next three years, after dipping into their reserves to cover spending. In response, Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South & Shoreditch and chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said many councils were relying on “rainy day funds” to pay for vital services. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism also found that 22 councils had reduced these reserves by more than 50 per cent in the last five years.

As well as dipping into reserves, councils also have to come up with ways to increase their income. Last month the LGiU found that 95 per cent of councils were hiking council tax, and 93 per cent were raising charges.

Whether these changes will be enough to prove Northamptonshire to be an isolated case remains to be seen. But for now, the warning signs could not be clearer.

Reporting on this story was aided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Nathan Fogg is a freelance investigative journalist.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.