Is Public Safety Being Compromised by Budget Cuts in Local Authority Trading Standards?

John Raine, Professor of Management in Criminal Justice

Some of the most severe effects of financial austerity of recent years have been borne by local authority trading standards departments.  In a recent survey of such departments, and out of a sample of sixty-one respondents, ten reported having experienced budgets cuts of more than a third in the past four years, and one by more than 50%.  Almost all departments have shed staff by significant margins, and most now operate with less than half as many people as they employed a decade or so ago.  And it seems that more cuts are yet to come.

Of course these are hard times for the public sector as a whole and for almost every department and agency involved.  But how fair and sensible have been the cuts to trading standards departments?  To what extent might their apparent severity reflect the perceived lesser priority, smaller scale or lower public profile of trading standards compared with, say, children’s services, adult social care, highways and other such functions of local government.  Or to what extent are the large-scale cuts simply indicative of more limited understanding among councillor decision-making bodies of the nature and value of trading standards work?  Indeed, how well-informed and how carefully justified have the budget cut decisions that have already been taken?  Most important, to what extent were they based on an appreciation of the actual and potential impact on public safety and protection?

Earlier this year, a team of three from INLOGOV completed a major research commission for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) examining these questions.  From that research three key findings and conclusions seem especially relevant here.

A weakened public profile

Too few members of the public are aware of the existence of local authority trading standards departments, let alone of the specific functions and roles undertaken within them.  Whatever public image does persist about trading standards, it is surely dominated by traditional perceptions about ‘weights and measures’; of inspectors checking the accuracy of the pumps on the garage forecourts, of the green grocer’s scales and of the accuracy and clarity of content descriptions and sell-by dates on foods products on the supermarket shelves.  But in reality this is just a small part of the contemporary portfolio of activities under the banner of ‘trading standards’.

In the past, the local trading standards department was the place where consumers often took their problems and complaints to seek advice and assistance in gaining redress from traders with whom they were dissatisfied.  But these days that first line point of call for consumer complaints has moved from local authorities to a nationally-established Citizens’ Advice Consumer Service (CACS).  Only if an individual case is subsequently referred to the local trading standards department by CACS might a member of the public come into contact with their local trading standards officers – so inevitably the profile and significance in the public consciousness of the function will have been much reduced.

At the same time, many other proactive and community-oriented/public protection-type initiatives of trading standards departments, such as the designation and regulation of Cold Calling Control Zones (to deter rogue traders and doorstep crime), and the operation of Trusted Traders/Buy with Confidence schemes (i.e. producing lists of local ‘approved’ builders for housing repairs or of recognised second hand car dealers) tend not to be as widely publicised or promoted as they might.

Furthermore, the development since 2000 of cabinet and executive governance structures in local authorities, and the move to fewer but larger service directorates, has also served to lower the profile of trading standards and to distance the work from most councillors.  This is because the function now tends to be located in conjunction with a wider set of functions such as public health or regulatory services as a whole, and trading standards departments no longer report to their own particular committee.  They are similarly that much more removed from the key political and corporate arenas where budget decision-making takes place, and chief trading standards officers, who are typically now third tier appointees, probably have less influence in such decision-making settings too.

Insufficient Commitment to Collaborative Working

Trading standards departments are generally more involved in partnership-working than in the past – several now operating with shared service arrangements with near neighbours; all doing more together at regional levels; and most also working in closer collaboration with the police and other regulatory agencies.  However, there remains much unexploited scope for addressing the budgetary pressures through more sharing of resources and joint working.  This is particularly the case in relation to activities that require expensive equipment or extensive space requirements (e.g. metrology equipment and other laboratory testing work).  Reluctance to surrender control (for good and less good reasons, and whether on the part of the local politicians or by officials), has been a key obstacle to more sharing of services or other collaborations, and indeed to more efficient and effective working.  Most departments, as a result, are now operating with very limited resilience, doing what they can to maintain standards and enforce compliance, but with their limited resources spread very thinly indeed.

The work of most departments these days is also now more reactive than proactive in nature – driven particularly by intelligence reports and complaints rather than, as in the past, by schedules of planned inspections to monitor and enforce standards.  Inevitably this must have increased the risks of safety problems and other non-compliance issues arising, and of potential detriment and harm to consumers.  However, hard evidence as to the extent of such effects was found in the research to be mostly anecdotal or intuitive.

A Paucity of Outcome and Impact Data

More than anything, the research has highlighted the paucity of quantitative data available by which to understand the current outcomes and impact of trading standards interventions and particularly the effects of local authority budget cuts in these respects.  While there is mostly good information on the financial value of remedies achieved through trading standards officer interventions on behalf of complainants, the research found little available data on the non-financial benefits of trading standards work.  Furthermore still less was apparent on the value of proactive and preventative activity, for instance, the work to enforce the law on under-age sales, to deter doorstep crime, and to identify and pursue non-compliant trading via Facebook and other web-sites.  For sure, the task of devising measures of outcomes and impact represents a considerable challenge; especially so in relation to potential problems (i.e. ones that have not actually arisen because of the proactivity of trading standards officers).  However, a key recommendation from the research is for a national project to be undertaken to develop an appropriate framework of quantitative outcome measures and of more qualitative impact indicators.  The argument for this is simple enough.  Only through the compilation and presentation of such information can trading standards departments reasonably justify their current budgets and resist the pressure further cuts.  Who knows?  With better outcome and impact data, perhaps some budget restoration might be a reasonable expectation.

Research Report ‘The Impact of Local Authority Trading Standards in Challenging Times’ by John Raine, Catherine Mangan and Peter Watt, INLOGOV, University of Birmingham, was published in March 2015 jointly by BIS and TSI and can be downloaded at:


John Raine has been an academic member of staff at the Institute of Local Government Studies since 1979, during which time he has served two terms as Director as well as Director of Postgraduate Research, and Director of Postgraduate Studies. He was founder director of the University’s brand-leading Public Service MBA programme and of the MSc in Public Management.

Oh dear… I’m wrong again!

Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV

When the Devolution/Combined Authority agenda began to gather momentum after the election I saw two key opportunities for local government; to achieve the practical benefits of operating at the right scale to deliver big ticket change and to improve collaboration by drawing in reluctant partners.  Central government’s insistence on ‘metro mayors’ as part of the deal seemed less of an impediment once Greater Manchester had shrugged and said ‘oh, alright then’.  Ever the optimist, I foresaw a range of CA’s operating at different scales and across varied geographies, receiving different devolution deals. How could I have been so self-deluded to imaging that anything so sensible would come to fruition?

So many things – big and small – get in the way.  Osborne’s big ambition is to regain some influence in the cities, particularly in the North, so why would he bother with those untidy two-tier county areas and sub regions riven by petty rivalries?  The success of Cornwall is the exception that proves the rule. It’s both a unitary, which makes it easy for central government to engage with, and chronically deprived so clearly something must be done.

Central government now lacks the skills and capacity to co-produce strong CA arrangements and negotiate more than a handful of effective devolution deals with local government. BIS, DCLG and the Treasury have all poked the CA proposals with their own particular sticks but a few junior civil servants nitpicking their way through agreements that have been hammered out by some of the big beasts of local government, who actually know what they are talking about, doesn’t add much value.

Now the door is closing. If nascent CAs haven’t already ticked all the boxes, it’s too late now.  Even those that looked as if they would make the grade may find they are operating at too small a scale and rapid agglomeration will be the only way to achieve their ambitions – but that’s a big challenge. An East Midlands CA would in involve 47 leaders and nearly as many chief executives – not an optimal number for strategic decision-making.

The small scale and diversity of much of local government, particularly in two tier areas, brings some advantages at a local level but creates enormous barriers to collective action. Local government still struggles to act in concert, to create a strong united front and operate at the right scale.    The reasons for that are many and varied but the three that I observe most frequently can be summed up as deficits in ambition, capacity and diplomacy. Why would a successful district leader reach for a big prize for their region but risk their authority within their group by  appearing to help their rival neighbours?  Local authorities have lost so much capacity – who will do the leg-work to make sense of so much complexity?  How can people who’ve made it their political life’s work to be disagreeable to each other, about matters of mind-numbing triviality, suddenly develop the necessary diplomatic skills to develop a convincing collective narrative?

There are a number of ways local government could overcome those deficits. They could support each other to be collectively more ambitious, they could pool their resources to fill capacity gaps by buying in expertise in the short term and they could set the bar for behaviour a bit higher so that gratuitous vileness becomes  as unacceptable as spitting on the carpet.  Well – it looks like they’ve got four years to do it.  If they don’t, perhaps their residents might feel poorly served when they miss out on the benefits of growth because their local leaders lack the will or the skill to collaborate.


Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.