Step change

4 Feb 10
Total Place could help solve the problem of drastic funding cuts for local services. But it’s going to be a steep learning curve for both Whitehall and town halls, says John Tizard
By John Tizard

4 February 2010

Total Place could help solve the problem of drastic funding cuts for local services. But it’s going to be a steep learning curve for both Whitehall and town halls, says John Tizard

Total Place, the government’s flagship programme for local services, is about to get an even higher profile. Early this month, the scheme’s national pilots will submit their reports to government. Then in March, the chancellor will report on the lessons from the pilots in his Budget statement.

It is great that the government remains strongly committed to the scheme, which also enjoys the support of opposition parties in both the localities and Westminster. However, ministerial exhortations, while necessary, will not be enough to ensure success. Dramatic change will be required in both local agencies and Whitehall to fulfil the huge potential of Total Place.

While we should avoid overestimating the short-term gains, there is eventually the possibility of Total Place eliminating duplication and making much more effective use of resources, thereby creating a ‘more for less’ culture. One major action that would accelerate this process would be for Whitehall to devolve a significant proportion of total public expenditure for a locality to that area to achieve agreed local outcomes. This would allow local determination of financial allocations ­between services. 

In return, local, regional and national agencies would have to work together through partnership and other collaborative arrangements. These might include: joint strategic commissioning; alignment and pooling of budgets; sharing people, systems and properties; and redesigning services across institutional and ­professional boundaries.

Such an approach is the logical conclusion for Total Place but some complex issues need to be addressed to make it practical. For a start, Whitehall and Westminster will have to trust localities and allow them to make decisions. They must celebrate local choice rather than moan about postcode lotteries. That said, it is right and proper that some expenditure and decisions should be retained at national level – for example anti-terrorism policing and perhaps some elements of the welfare ­benefit system.

Equally, Westminster has a right in our parliamentary system to lay down the basic services citizens should be entitled to. Therefore, there needs to be an urgent debate, with an agreed timetable, about what could or should be devolved and what any national entitlements would be. There will also need to be an agreement on extending local accountabilities – who will make the decisions on resource allocation, local entitlements and eligibility criteria, charges and other factors? 

In practice, this could mean localities determining benefit levels within national guidelines. It could also mean a local decision to expand education rather than health services, provided that nationally set entitlements were realised. 

This accountability should be firmly based on the democratic legitimacy of local government and elected local leaders; no other local body has this democratic connection with the community. However, councillors and directly elected mayors should obviously consult.

One means of extending the authority, influence and accountability of local government would be to make principal local authorities responsible for strategic commissioning of all locally controlled services, including elements of the benefits service. This would involve setting outcome targets, and allocating devolved funding between services and agencies, following consultation with all relevant bodies, the public and local businesses.

Public service boards might be established to ensure that such strategic commissioning was influenced and advised by professional expertise. This should be a matter for local determination within the national legislation. These boards would report to Local Strategic Partnerships and be subject to local government scrutiny.

Service commissioning could continue to reside with specialist agencies such as primary care trusts and the police. Unless there is local voluntary agreement to find the means to integrate all or part of these agencies they could remain separate, so long as the relationships and ­accountabilities are clear.   

In return for these new powers, councils would have to devolve more to communities and neighbourhoods, and respect the differences within their areas. They would need to accept their responsibilities, and not blame central government every time there is a problem – winter gritting being a case in point. They would have to actively build up credibility within their communities and recognise the power and value of a strong civil society.

Whitehall is very likely to be smaller with less capacity and must have less interest in micro-managing local ­issues.  This will be a big cultural and behavioural shift for civil servants and politicians – no more ministers feeling obliged to rush to the Westminster dispatch box to answer for a service issue in a locality, unless it is a direct Whitehall responsibility. Permanent secretaries will have to have a different set of accountabilities, and answer to the Commons Public Accounts Committee only for those matters they control.

This is a complex area but one that cannot be fudged.  The required changes will be difficult, especially for the major spending departments. But unless they recognise the benefit of local flexibility and responsiveness, they will not be able to achieve their objectives.

Thankfully, increasing numbers of politicians and officials do champion such changes – at least intellectually. Now, we need to move to the next stage: practical commitment. Implementation of greater devolution could initially be to local areas that can demonstrate the will, leadership and capacity to maximise the advantages of this approach.

The next five to ten years are going to be very challenging, but unless we find a way to make scarce public resources work effectively, our economy, public services, quality of life and opportunities will all be at serious risk.

Total Place might not be the total solution but it can offer the catalyst for a new future.

John Tizard is director of [email protected] – the former Centre for Public Partnerships, which joined the Local Government Information Unit last month

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