Taking Community Budgets Forward

Community Budgets were introduced in October 2010 as part of the Spending Review with the aim of bringing different national and local funding streams together into a single local funding pot and, by doing so enabling various different local agencies, local authorities included, “to redesign services around the needs of citizens, improving outcomes, reducing duplication and waste and so saving significant sums of public money”. The concept underpinning Community Budgets initially tested through 16 pilots tackling social problems around families with complex needs, built on the previous Government’s work on Local Area Agreements (LAAs) and Total Place. Subsequently, last July local authority chief executives were told that DCLG wanted to roll out Community Budgets for families with multiple problems to about 50 areas by April 2012.

It is difficult to argue against the basic idea of Community Budgets (and Total Place before it). It makes no sense for local agencies to spend lots of small sums of money on similar people, or indeed places, when they can be combined to create much more joined up and efficient services. Equally, if you had a blank sheet of paper you wouldn’t design the current architecture of local public services in the way it is currently configured.

So, why were the Coalition Government reluctant to back the work of the Total Place pilots? The delay with coming up with its own approach was not simply about settling upon a rebranding to ensure it was invented by the right party. Rather, there was a fundamental rejection around the new Cabinet table of what Total Place was representing to them.  They viewed Total Place as local government not merely leading local transformation but as a Trojan horse to grab more power, responsibilities and funding. This was not something, they had in mind. There is, unjustified, scepticism about local authorities’ ability join up their own services, let alone of those of the other public bodies in their areas. They are also disinterested in making local government part of the solution to a range of problems, and certainly not those which involve the core of their particular agenda.

It might be pointed out that public health is being transferred to local government. But would that have happened if Primary Care Trusts had been retained? Even DCLG Ministers walked away from statements made in opposition on abolishing and devolving the Homes and Communities Agency’s functions. A report published ahead of the General Election by Paul Carter, leader of Kent County Council which made the case for taking over whole swathes of the local arms of Central Government based on the Total Place analysis was ignored, probably unread by the Conservative Party hierarchy. Even Boris Johnson’s bid to take over NHS London was ignored.

Instead, the Community Budget pilots will run at a time of radical changes in local governance, notably in the police force, health, welfare to work and schools. In aggregate taking powers away and not to local government. With the Community Budget prospectus making clear that the roll out of these existing reforms must be placed at the centre of any pilot proposals, the scheme has been severely limited from the start. So while Eric Pickles has promised that ‘nothing is off the table’ when it comes to the budgets which can be pooled, we have to ask what is left?

That’s not to say that the agencies (Clinical Commissioners Groups, Academies and Police Commissioners etc) at the end of these reforms will not participate. But they are unlikely to be compelled and will only do so only when they we see a mutual interest and, if they are empowered to do so. This was evident in the first 16 pilots on complex families.

At the same time other opportunities to develop and increase the influence of Community Budgets are passing it by; for example, the recently published youth sports strategy which is investing £450 million primarily through the National Governing Bodies, when local authorities are biggest investors in community sporting facilities and services. And when the directly elected police commissioners are in place do not be too surprised to find that they be passed responsibility for the commissioning of youth justice services in the same way, that local authorities were overlooked in the delivering of the Work Programme in favour of private and third sector providers.

It would seem that the Troubled Families Team has also given up on Community Budgets. Supporters of Community Budgets point to David Cameron’s enthusiasm for them. It is true that David Cameron saw Community Budgets as helping to achieve his commitment to get the 120,000 most troubled families back on track by 2015. They misunderstood he was not so much concerned with the means to tackling problem families, but that they should be tackled. Pragmatically, Louise Casey took one look at the time it had taken not to convince local partners to pool and align funding and has taken the short cut via a payment by results model with upfront funding relegating the need for Community Budgets. Indeed Community Budgets are not even referred to in the recently published framework document for the trouble families’ programme.

If the Government wanted local government to have a wider role this would not be achieved through Community Budgets which are essentially a joint commissioning tool. Rather that role would be built into new structures through public service reform. This is not just about the odd duty to consult here or a partnership structure there. But their role intrinsically built into the reforms or indeed leading them.

The LGA are pushing for a shared burden of proof between local authorities and Whitehall following the model set out in last year’s City Deals prospectus where Whitehall should be expected to devolve power unless it had a legitimate and evidence-based reason not to do so. While, this customised approach might work with a small number of local areas this could prove over-complicated and end up with a confusing pattern of local governance and service delivery.

If the Government was serious about Community Budgets then it (and the Treasury in particular) should pool and then slice budgets off at a national level through the Comprehensive Spending Review. This could be based on business case which identifies a percentage of funding (perhaps disaggregating core and strategic funding) or alternatively potential outcomes which are better designed through local partnerships. This would bind Whitehall department’s closer together and make local co-ordination a better chance of success.

Eighteen months is not a long time, and the pilot sites will not be able to put plans fully into action in that time let alone register changes to complex social outcomes. It will be here that there be regret that the Coalition Government didn’t continue with the Total Place pilots, in whole or part. The danger, as alluded to by one of the witnesses is that for central government the pilots will remain simply interesting experiments and that, like with Total Place, proof is deemed not ‘sufficient’ to persuade Whitehall of the need for change.

So what does this mean for the pilots and, for local government in general?

It has to mean going with the grain and continuing to use their ‘soft power’ to bring together a range of commissioners at a local level; this may include some with a bigger electoral mandate (e.g. Mayors and Police Commissioners), then push the boundaries.

The whole place Community Budgets project has to be about delivery not more proving a case for change, which some will argue, was made over two years ago. Total Place was not helped by getting bogged down in inter-organisational rivalry within the local government family and not see past counting money which soaked up too much time and effort. As consequence and despite the common myth, it didn’t offer anything compelling for Whitehall to reject. It would have proved much more effective if groups of areas collaborated on developing radical proposals for service design and intervention, cost these, and then track back to identify the savings that could be made by dismantling less effective services and funding architecture. In other words focus upon the outcomes and the results, not the process.

So, while some savings come from removing duplication and streamlining services, areas which the Total Place pilots seem to focus upon, the big savings come from challenging the relationship between the state, individuals and communities, shifting resources upstream with a focus upon prevent and designing those interventions around outcomes.

Local Government as a sector has to also seize the opportunities, outside the formal pilot process, to make the case. Be seen to the Cabinet Ministers referred to above that local government are the source of solutions, not problems, and shift the relationship from DCLG to the Treasury, who really counts. At the recent Budget, George Osborne revealed that if the Government maintained the same rate of reductions in departmental spending in the 2010 Spending Review, then there would have to be savings in welfare of £10 billion by 2016. There is a good starting point for local government, not how to get more powers and resources.

This post is based on a LGiU member briefing by Mark Upton. More briefings can be viewed here.

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