Both ‘Total Place’, initiated through a partnership between the last Labour government and local government, and the current coalition government’s ‘Whole Place Community Budgets’ have much to offer to the debate on future spending choices.
I was the programme director for the Total Place pilot in Worcestershire, where total public expenditure, including welfare and pension transfer payments in the county, were in excess of £4.4bn. Of this, less than 25 per cent was through the six local authorities (county council and five districts) – and less than 10 per cent if school based expenditure is included. The biggest element was the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions. So, there is clearly a lack of local control and accountability for the majority of local public expenditure. And this at a time when people feel distance from government and have low confidence in central politics.
Centrally, control of services has not always led to equality of outcomes. Different places have different needs. Instead of moaning about ‘a postcode lottery’ we should celebrate local democratic choice.
The Worcestershire pilot and other pilots across England demonstrated conclusively the potential to improve public service outcomes and save expenditure through a pooling of resources and greater ‘local’ control over their deployment.
And no surprise. Whole Place Community Budget pilots have demonstrated precisely the same. Inevitably, when we have several agencies with different funding streams, separate governance and accountability, various and sometimes overlapping statutory duties and powers, and very different histories (not to say cultures) – there arises duplication of effort and expenditure. This is clearly unhelpful, especially in a time of austerity and limited public finance. Worse, the public does not necessarily receive or have access to the most effective and easily accessible services. And too often, the individual citizen or service user has to navigate themselves around a crazy and irrational labyrinth of services and agencies. In fact, through duplication of spending, citizens have less quality or volume of services available because precious money is being spent twice or more times by different bodies on the same issues – with different interventions occasionally complementing each other, but too often contradicting each other, and so adding confusion for the public.
In Worcestershire, a project looking at services to support young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs) found over 40 agencies in the public, private and third sectors involved in these services. The ‘radical’ suggestion of starting from the perspective of the young person and ignoring current institutional and professional boundaries made clear that through a complete service redesign. 30 per cent plus of administrative costs could be saved and the young people would receive a better service.
In terms of the public estate: why do we need to have several public access points in the same town centre – council office, Job Centre Plus, library, advice centre, NHS clinic and a police front desk? Actually, we don’t.
It is a fact that sharing premises or creating a single property asset vehicle leading to co-locating services and staff inevitably leads to new ways of integrated working, leading to improved services, revenue savings and capital receipts.
All the Total Place pilots demonstrated scope for significant savings. Unfortunately in 2010 the new government aborted the programme, ironically at the same as it was making major cuts, when it could have made a big difference. Thankfully, the government has subsequently introduced Community Budgets
The Local Government Association (LGA) rightly claims that the Whole Place Community Budget pilots have shown that successful community budgeting enables an area to deliver better service to citizens because it can:
- make better use of its resources, including pooling and aligning the budgets of all agencies where it is effective to do so, including local knowledge, community assets and voluntary effort
- remove central rules and regulations so local professionals can deliver better services by re-designing them so delivery is more effective for residents
- give people greater control over their local public services
- establish appropriate local partnership and governance arrangements to create a unified approach that suits their area.
Neighbourhood Community Budgets provide an opportunity to involve the voluntary community sector and local businesses; and can contribute to developing community resilience through the utilisation of community assets and human capital.
No one agency can make Community Budgets or Total Place succeed. It requires collaboration and political will.
Inevitably, theory is somewhat easier than the practice. Certain conditions will be required if Total Place or similar approaches are to succeed, including:
- excellent local political and managerial leadership
- local and national leaders who can park their egos and territorial protectionism to pool resources and, on occasion, cede power and authority for the greater good
- all major spending departments across Whitehall being prepared to contribute as full players
- a consensual agreement on national entitlements in a modern progressive society and what should be subject to local democratic choice. (Such an approach should be ensure equity, rights, equality and fairness for all citizens –fundamental objectives for social democrats
- in the context of the above, consider the introduction of a ‘block grant’ for the monies in play from cross–departmental budgets allocated directly to places – preferably to the democratically accountable local authority; allowing for local choice on budget allocation (deciding what where and to what degree there can be local decisions on what otherwise would be national policies)
- the retention of central re-distribution of resources given the inequalities and unequal tax bases across the country
- the design of a public accountancy regime that incentivises and enables one agency to make an investment and be credited for the financial benefit that accrues to another agency at some future date
- encouraging agencies to free up or borrow money to invest in preventative interventions with long term pay backs – noting that where the benefit is local, this should be easier
A left-of-centre government must inevitably consider such an approach as part of a wider set of policies designed to stimulate growth and address social inequalities. Such an approach can enhance the ‘City Deals’ and other decentralisation policies.
It is time to stop piloting and to start devolving; and to start to let local people take local decisions. The prize is great. Based on the current Community Budgets, the LGA predicts that between £9.4bn and £20.6bn could be saved over the next five years if the programme is adopted across England alone.