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ANALYSIS - FREEDOMS MENU OFFERS APPETISERS

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>> Government is still too inflexible to embrace innovation proposed in LAAs...
>> Government is still too inflexible to embrace innovation proposed in LAAs

>> ODPM document provides welcome clarity on which freedoms are permitted

>> Strong demand for more concessions

By Nick Golding

The local area agreements bible has been published. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has released the most detailed guidance to date on which freedoms and flexibilities will be permitted to councils and their partners, and which will not.

It is widely anticipated that the new details will make it easier for councils to frame the agreements which, it is hoped, should extend the tentacles of local government into areas including health and crime, which have in recent decades been largely immune to local democratic input.

So, with councils in the driving seat of public service boards, can LAAs finally deliver joined-up services at a local level?

The government appears to hope so, with key policy planks such as the health white paper, which increases linkages between councils and primary care trusts, and the respect action plan, which sees LAAs as a route to closer co-operation between local government and the police.

However, the framing of LAAs has been fraught with difficulty.

Scores of councils have complained that while the government has shown initial enthusiasm for their proposals to join up local services, all too often proposed freedoms are curtailed or denied by civil servants in the negotiation stage.

But now councils and their partners have been equipped with the fine print to say what is likely to be permissible.

They can, for instance, pay workers other than GPs to deliver primary care services such as smoking cessation. However, the precedent suggests police funds cannot be pooled as part of the LAA.

The document, Local area agreements:

enabling measures, reads like a checklist of possibilities which councils can take forward to their regional government office. If a proposal receives regional endorsement, the case will then go forward to the relevant central government departments.

However, the ODPM warns that the list, which currently reflects only the first round of LAAs and will be shortly updated to incorporate the lessons of round two, cannot be regarded as definitive.

'Requests are considered on a case-by-case basis, so a request may be agreed for one local area but not for another,' it warns.

An ODPM spokesman says: 'The whole point of local area agreements is that they reflect each local authority. Councils can now look around and see what's going on nationwide - this will give them ideas and contains guidance to help them overcome barriers they might face.'

With LAAs due to be set up in every part of England by 2007, this latest guidance, while not all-encompassing, has been widely welcomed.

Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart (Con), the Local Government Association's chairman, describes the latest publication as a 'huge step forward' but warned it needed to be coupled with a change in emphasis from the ODPM.

'Local area agreements aren't easy to set up. Although they have huge potential there's an awful lot to do to make sure that they work and I think there's a tendency to make them too bureaucratic,' he says.

'We want to see a step change, not incremental increases in freedoms.'

Among his complaints is the refusal to allow local freedom to enshrine how substance misuse funds are spent when the government's respect action plan charged councils, police and other local agencies to use LAAs to tackle anti-social behaviour.

As a result, National Treatment Agency grants cannot be used on other local priorities such as alcohol or mental health programmes - even if drinking or the mental health effects of drugs are considered the most under-funded local problems that lead to disorder.

Sir Sandy complains: 'This is a top-down approach, but they always talk about a bottom-up approach. The simple fact is that this country is uniquely centralised - we need a genuine shift to devolution and greater autonomy.'

He still feels there is a 'genuine enthusiasm' among ODPM ministers to use LAAs to transform services, but is keen for that to be backed up by their counterparts in other departments.

The New Local Government Network's head of policy, Dick Sorabji, welcomes the document as a 'step towards a much bigger and radical process' but he calls for a more concerted drive to pass autonomy on to councils.

'The government still focuses its discussion on giving a 'yes' or 'no' based on whether the

ideas coming up fit in with existing strategy, rather than considering whether they are better than the existing government strategy,' he says.

'The government should say 'what a great idea' instead of saying 'it's irrelevant because it doesn't fit in with us'.'

He adds: 'They should unleash the local authority's scope to innovate. At the moment the constraints are slowing down public service improvement to the pace that Whitehall wants.'

Neil McInroy, the chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, which has acted as a consultancy to a number of the first batch of 21 LAA pilot schemes, says many councils have been 'screaming out' for the clarification supplied in the 'road map'.

'Clearly this is early days. The agreed LAAs are pilots and can be seen as pioneers,' he explains.

'What you can imagine in the future is a range of freedoms and flexibilities that local areas would have - they could choose a flexibility as if it was duck a l'orange from a menu.

'This could be a starter menu, and in future there will be the main course and desert with new imaginative and creative powers and flexibilities.'

Mr McInroy says more clarification is required on which freedoms will be permitted in different kinds of areas. Would certain childcare schemes, for instance, be more appropriate for areas with a poorly qualified population?

He notes that many of the refusals to grant requests have been connected to local partners attempting to adapt the funding of a programme which is coming toan end. For instance, councils were keen to remove ring-fencing around the disabled facilities grant, but the ODPM says no such freedom can be given until the future of the grant has been reviewed.

Among those keen to build on the guidance is Roger Hughes, Coventry City Council's head of corporate policy.

Coventry was among the first 21 councils to embark on LAAs and it now wants to revise its existing agreement to take into account the new range of economic development freedoms permitted.

Mr Hughes hopes that in three years' time the list of enabling measures will have grown. 'The ODPM has recognised that there's a plethora of targets, but it should be possible through the LAA to come to an agreement about the outcomes that they expect us to achieve,' he says.

Until such freedoms have been achieved, the current edition of Local area agreements: enabling measures will not gain the status of a bible. But few can deny that it spreads the gospel of how to achieve that righteous goal of empowering councils.

The freedoms menu promises a much-needed starting place, but misses the chance to make a fundamental difference, says Michael Frater

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minster's paper on local area agreement-enabling measures, while welcome, misses the opportunity to make a fundamental difference in the delivery of local services.

Local government has been underwhelmed by freedoms and flexibilities, whether 'negotiated' through LAAs or offered to reward CPA excellence. The problem, however, is not the ODPM, but the big spending departments.

The assumption of 'competence' in local government is welcome. Ministers David Miliband and Phil Woolas' commitment to LAAs and deregulation now provide a real opportunity to take the debate beyond competence.

We need a government-wide agenda that truly rewards high performance, incentivises further improvement and addresses the massive costs to councils of monitoring and inspection. This would enable a step-change in service delivery.

Some easy quick-win freedoms and flexibilities could symbolise the start of a sea-change in central/local relations. These could include:

>> Drastic streamlining of the 1,000 performance indicators/information items that different parts of government require from councils and the establishment of a joint forum to act as 'gatekeeper' on future requirements

>> Removal of the capital/revenue 50/50 split prescribed for Local Public Service Agreement reward grant

>> Exemption for 4* councils from the annual comprehensive performance assessment Value

for Money inspection for two years.

The presumption of competence needs to build quickly into mutual trust between central and local government. CPA has shown local government's commitment and ability to improve service delivery. ODPM's efforts to move the policy forward and to reframe central/local relations should be applauded.

The challenge for the big spending departments is threefold:

>> Understand what local government is and does

>> Be clear about the key high level outcomes that matter to ministers

>> Stop trying to micro-manage local services from the centre.

Until that happens both ministers and councils will be frustrated in their efforts to transform public services.

Michael Frater Chief executive, Telford & Wrekin Council

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