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Havering Council in East London is experiencing significant financial challenges, as is common in local government. The Council decided to work with the investigative documentary series, BBC One’s Panorama, for many months to show the issues that the Council faces. Westco’s Marcus Chrysostomou, who leads the award-winning in-house communications team, explains what happened and how the arrangement worked.


Like most of local government, Havering has seen its government grants decrease drastically year-on-year, meaning that it receives most of its funding through council tax. The borough faces mounting challenges, particularly in social services costs, notably in child services, as it ranks fifth in the UK for the fastest-growing children's population. 


Additionally, homelessness rates are on the rise, further straining resources and exacerbating financial constraints.


Understanding Havering Council's challenges


Unlike some other councils, Havering’s challenges were not the result of poor financial management. Instead, they stemmed from an outdated government funding formula that fails to consider recent demographic shifts, meaning it doesn’t take into account the pressures outlined above when calculating how much funding the borough should receive.


To prevent a section 114, where a council effectively goes bust, Havering applied for a government loan, otherwise known as a capitalisation directive. Alongside this, the Council has been lobbying for a fairer funding formula, as well as better regulation of children’s care placements (which come at a high cost), and a more sustainable, long-term funding solution. 


This is why Havering also approached Panorama to discuss how they could work together to explore the challenges facing the council.


Behind the scenes with BBc Panorama


The key contact was a BBC journalist who works with the Panorama production company. Several meetings were held to scope the project and establish parameters within which they would work, particularly while filming. To support this, a designated member of the comms team acted as the liaison, dealing with the day-to-day filming and location requests, and being present when required. 


I acted as a sounding board, liaising with senior stakeholders at the council and providing background briefings to Panorama. It was agreed that filming would start in October 2023, focusing particularly on children’s social care and housing issues. The plan was to weave together human stories mixed with council business to illustrate Havering’s difficult position and how they finally achieved a balanced budget in January 2024 after hearing they had received the Government loan.


It was also decided that the documentary would be an honest, ‘warts and all’ portrayal and the council granted open access to the Panorama team.


In the spotlight


After five months of filming, concluding in January 2024, Paying More for Less: Councils in Crisis was available to watch in advance on BBC iPlayer or in the evening on BBC One on 18 March 2024. On the day of release, the programme received promotion and coverage on BBC Breakfast news, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, and many other BBC news outlets.


The following day, the documentary was picked up by several national newspapers, as well as Sky, Channel 4, and local BBC stations in Essex and London. The story was then picked up by local London and Essex newspapers too.


The important thing for Havering Council was that the programme was open and honest, but felt sympathetic to the plight of the council. All the political parties were asked for a comment and interview and it highlighted the wider issue that local government funding is broken and needs to be fixed. 


Reflection of the process


From the council’s perspective, although time and resource-intensive, the endeavour was worthwhile and met its key objective of advocating for a better solution. Establishing clear parameters from the outset and giving open access where possible was the right decision. Regular meetings with the Panorama team helped iron out any issues, fostering a foundation of trust and understanding between all parties.


While the documentary received a positive reaction across local government, there was another, even more important positive outcome. It provided additional credence and insight to the residents of the borough about the Council’s financial challenges and many residents responded to councillors directly (or through its social media channels) offering feedback and generating debate between them.


So was it worth it? Absolutely, but you have to make sure you invest adequate time and resources to get it right.


About the documentary 


Filmed over five months inside a council on the verge of bankruptcy, Panorama explores why many town halls across the UK are in financial crisis. Reporter Alison Holt follows councillors and officials as they make decisions on which services to cut and which to charge more for in Havering, a London borough facing a £50 million deficit. As the clock ticks down to decision day, she discovers how spiralling care costs for children, the elderly and homeless people are threatening to push the council – and others across the UK – into the red. Watch it here.





Havering Council in East London is experiencing significant financial challenges, as is common in local government.


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