The upcoming ‘whole place’ Community Budget pilots need to focus on delivery, not on making a case for change that has already been made
Eric Pickle’s announcement yesterday of ‘whole place’ Community Budgets is to be welcomed.
After 18 months in office the government has again recognised the opportunities that Total Place had already identified. There are significant benefits from commissioning for place, joining up local public services, pooling budgets, sharing resources, people, systems and properties, and above all focusing on outcomes for citizens and their communities rather than public institutions. The Total Place pilots – official and unofficial – in 2009/10 demonstrated this.
The government’s Community Budget initiative, although it was a pale shadow of Total Place, also demonstrated the gains that can be made when all local services working with the community and voluntary and private sectors share common objectives to find solutions for otherwise intractable challenges.
The introduction of whole place Community Budgets provides places with the opportunity to build on both Total Place and Community Budgets. At a time of budget cuts across the public sector the use of scarce resources more effectively and efficiently is essential. However, to succeed whole place Community Budgets will require wholesale redesign of services across institutional and professional boundaries. There should be priority given to tackling the causes of problems and not simply addressing the symptoms. This will, in turn, require bold effective local leadership. It will also require total commitment from every Whitehall department and a willingness to allow most of local public expenditure to be available to support whole place Community Budgets.
The statement from the Department for Communities and Local Government begs a number of key questions which ministers should address.
Why only two pilots? There is a strong appetite and the ability to implement whole place Community Budgets or similar arrangements across the country. The decision to select only two places is unlikely to provide the necessary representative sample of places and makes the government look reluctant rather than enthusiastic about the initiative. Indeed one could argue that any place where the local authority in partnership with the key local agencies is willing to take the programme forward should be allowed to do so.
Will the government mandate all of Whitehall and the various services and agencies that it sponsors to participate, and more significantly will it allow local decisions making on matters such as welfare benefits, the Work Programme, the NHS, and education? It is essential that as much of the total local expenditure and the underlying policies are in the whole place Community Budgets pot. Community Budgets have been much more limited in scope to the frustration of many local leaders and practitioners, and to the disadvantage of local service users and communities.
Will local government’s democratic legitimacy and community leadership role be acknowledged? Local government working with its partners in the public, voluntary and community, and private sectors must lead the process and be accountable to local people for its performance. Although these are national pilots the core accountability has to be local through the ballot box and not up to Whitehall. Local authorities can and should be commissioning outcomes for their communities and, of course, this requires collaboration not control of the other contributing bodies. Whole place Community Budgets can be a real demonstration of local government-led democratic community leadership.
The Kerslake review and other studies, as well as the Total Place pilots, identified a number of barriers to effective pooling and sharing of budgets and resources in localities. Is the government willing to address any legislative and regulatory blockages and to do this on the assumption of the prominence of local accountability?
A range of cultural and professional challenges will need to be overcome at a local level. This will demand bold and focused leadership – political and managerial. It will require a willingness to cede and share resources, power and control. Above all as Total Place showed it will require a willingness to work together to secure the right outcomes for local people.
The whole place Community Budgets project has to be about delivery not more proving a case for change that was made over two years ago.
The government’s new initiative could pave the way for a major step towards localism but not if it is confined to only two places; and most certainly not if there is not a real transfer of power, money and authority from Whitehall to town hall.