Policy in Practice Blog: Building the financial strength of councils starts with residents

CCN Blogs | 14 December 2021


The financial resilience of councils was a strong theme running throughout this year’s CCN Annual conference, from the speakers to the conversations amongst delegates.

Building the financial strength of residents plays an important part in reducing the demand on councils and one County Councils Network member, in particular, is leading the way.

Kent County and districts identify over £6million to boost resident’s financial strength

In a first for local government, Kent county and district councils are collaborating with their data to get insights that help them to tackle poverty across the county. Early results show that three data-led benefit take-up campaigns have already resulted in £400,000 of extra income going into the pockets of elderly residents. With 45 more campaigns underway this scales to £6 million of extra income across the county by early 2022.

The information revealed by the councils’ data is now driving nearly fifty poverty prevention campaigns. These campaigns are helping to target a wide range of support to vulnerable residents such as free school meal take-up, employment support, public health interventions, housing initiatives and benefits.

“Districts have the data, knowledge and expertise. County has size and scale. We had to combine the best of us to come up with something that’s going to help many in a positive way.”

Zena Cooke, Director of Corporate Finance, Kent County Council

The social and financial case calling Kent to act

One of the greatest challenges councils have faced in the past two years has been the strain the pandemic has placed on resources. As the number of people claiming Universal Credit reached an all-time high of over 6 million people in early 2020, supporting those struggling financially was and remains a top priority for local authorities.

In summer 2020 Kent Resilience Forum set up a group to focus support to residents at risk or already experiencing financial hardship because of the pandemic. Residents unused to facing financial hardship suddenly needed help to navigate support and advice systems. The group knew that things are likely to get worse for Kent’s residents before they get better as furlough ends and families who were just about managing are tipped over the edge.

At the start of the pandemic both county and district councils shared the objective of supporting as many residents and businesses as possible. Kent County Council was keen to make sure that funding was used wisely and targeted to residents most in need. Key to this was finding a way to help families immediately whilst also securing a sustainable way to help vulnerable residents in years to come.

Using data for good

Kent county and district councils’ data sharing gives them powerful cross-county insights to drive poverty prevention activity. In practical terms, this means that district councils share their administrative data, in aggregate and including Universal Credit data, with the county. Everyone can now explore the data, visualising trends, using a new Living Standards Index for Kent platform. Districts can view changes over time and drill down from county to district to ward to household level. This lets them accurately target support.

The LSI-Kent platform allows those with upper-tier oversight to see changes at a district level and target support accordingly. Users can track Council Tax support spend across all districts, compare caseloads and benchmarks to assess local demand, view average caseloads across districts, and view changes over time.

Importantly, the project has transparency built-in so that councils can very easily benchmark with each other to identify and share best practices in a safe, collaborative way.

“The LSI-Kent was a no-brainer because we knew what we could do with it would be far more longer-term and sustainable than just something that was an immediate reaction to the pandemic”

Zena Cooke, Director of Corporate Finance, Kent County Council

Kent’s success can be replicated elsewhere: 5 lessons learned

With early successes achieved and the promise of more to come, the approach taken by Kent is a great example of collaboration between local government to address inequality and of levelling up activity in action.

Zena Cooke’s lessons learned to help other tier 1 and tier 2 councils replicate this approach:

  1. People on the ground know the situation best. When you’re in a two-tier area you have to recognize and respect the knowledge and expertise of each of the parties and what you’re bringing to the table
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. If something similar already exists, for example Data Sharing Agreements, borrow and expand where needed. This saves a huge amount of time and energy
  3. Learn from the success of others. We were very clear that we wanted to hear from other councils about what they were doing and what they’d achieved because they were much further ahead of us. We also wanted to see how we could apply what they were doing in a two-tier context
  4. Focus on benefits for residents. Getting your shared objectives right makes it really clear that even in a two-tier area you are all trying to achieve the same thing
  5. Don’t wait to get everyone on board. You don’t have to start big; we took an approach of three districts at a time. As the county council we acknowledged how small district council budgets are by paying for the system and implementation support for two years. This means we can pilot it and demonstrate its worth to evidence why districts would want to continue

To learn more visit www.policyinpractice.co.uk/kent

Deven Ghelani
Director and Founder, Policy in Practice