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Council leaders sceptical of ‘Big Society’

By Richard Johnstone | 12 October 2011

Almost two-thirds of councils do not think that local communities will be able to take over the running of public services, despite the government’s Big Society ambitions.

In a survey of council leaders, chief executives, Cabinet members and policy heads, 64% of respondents said they believed the capacity of the community sector to manage services or assets was ‘low’ or ‘very low’. The survey, published by the Local Government Information Unit and insurer Zurich, covered 82 English councils.

Only one in five of respondents had formally assessed the community’s appetite for more involvement, despite government plans to give charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations a greater role in the provision of community services.

As part of the Big Society plans, local people will be able to use a ‘community right to buy’ to take over any council services threatened with closure, from libraries to leisure centres. Voluntary groups will also be able to bid for more services under reforms proposed in the Open public services white paper.

However, councils might be too risk-averse to allow community groups to take on services, the survey finds. Almost all of those surveyed – 99% – said that they did not have a risk strategy that would allow for greater community involvement in services.

Children’s services was the area where councils were most risk averse. More than two-fifths (41%) said that they were ‘unlikely to take any risks’ in this sector. Almost a third (29%) reported the same level of precaution for adult social care services.

The report warns that by continuing to avoid risk, councils could miss the chance to create better services and save money. It calls for councils to adopt a strategic approach to risk that embraces community involvement.

Local authorities should establish a scrutiny panel dedicated to corporate risk management and assess the risk appetitefor services across the council, the report recommends. This would determine which areas are most appropriate for community involvement.

Councils should also be developing a strategy for managing the implications of the community ‘right to buy’ and ‘right to challenge’ provisions that will be given to communities as part of the government’s Localism Bill.

Jonathan Carr-West, policy director at LGiU, said: ‘The combination of pressure on the public finances and long-term societal, economic and demographic changes means that we cannot continue to deliver public services in the same old way.

‘These are not challenges we can opt out of, and we need real innovation. In this context, risk avoidance may be the riskiest thing of all.’

Andrew Jepp, public services director at Zurich Municipal, added: ‘The report clearly demonstrates that councils must re-evaluate their risk management strategies if they are to deal effectively with the new landscape of public service delivery presented by the Localism Bill.’

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