47 – Core services in local government. What are they?

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              560 words

In an earlier post I discussed local government services and how they can be defined. This post discusses the concept of ‘core’ services delivered by councils, particularly in relation to the potential impact of rate capping (see here, here, here and here). Councils will be looking to reduce the rate of growth in expenditure and many will have to reduce current levels of expenditure. It will not be possible to maintain delivery of all services at current service levels. The starting point is likely to be a discussion about what makes a service a ‘core’ service.

A working definition of a core service is anything the council does that it is compelled to do under legislation. For example, hold elections and form a council, make and enforce local laws, provide a town planning service, control building development, inspect food premises, ensure there is a road to every property. Councils have no choice but to provide these services. Councils also have to prepare some statutory plans, for example the Public Health Plan. The State government has passed legislation to ensure that they do. The council is an authority.

The next category of ‘core’ service are the universal services provided to all citizens. For example, collect waste from households, provide parks, construct and maintain drainage networks, and sweep streets.   These services are not legislated but it has always made sense for the council to do them on behalf of all residents, often at very low unit cost. The council has powers to force people to pay for some of these services directly or through rates, and to make people comply with service requirements. The council is a coercive service provider.

The next category of services is often not considered to be ‘core’. They are services made available to all services for their use if they choose to use them. This includes libraries, recreation centres, community centres, art galleries, cultural centres, and kindergartens. The services are not legislated and are not delivered to all citizens but are available to all citizens. There may be a fee for the service. The council is a discretionary service provider.

The last category of services are those delivered to targeted groups. Not everyone in the community meets eligibility criteria.   For example, many aged and disability services. These services can be provided to people in centres or in their home. The services are not legislated and are not delivered to all citizens and are not available to all citizens. Council is a provider of targeted services.

The various types of services can be categorised according to whether they are legislated, universal, available to everyone, or only available to some. The ‘core’ services are really the legislated or universal services. All other services are ‘non-core’ and councils may choose not to deliver them to their communities. They may arrange for delivery by other public or private service providers.

I am not advocating for councils to stop delivering non-core services; many do a fine job in delivering them and they provide value that would be difficult for other providers to replicate. The problem will be if there isn’t enough funding for all services. Then decisions will need to be made, and there will need to be a logic in deciding what service expenditures to reduce. Core and non-core could be that logic.