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Community budgets proposals 'a golden opportunity missed'

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Proposals for community budgets outlined in the spending review are a far cry from the radical new approach that Total Place promised, argues Anna Turley.

Plenty has been written elsewhere about the huge and devastating implications of the 28% cuts to local government funding. The frustration is that there was another way to make these savings. The spending review pretty much snuffed out that opportunity.

Alongside anger at the scale of the cuts, and the unequal impact on the areas most dependent on grant, is a real frustration at the loss of a golden opportunity.

The Total Place pilots programme demonstrated that big savings were available by re-shaping the way money is channelled from the top down through departments to the localities. It also demonstrated the positive impact early intervention and prevention could have on life chances and on costs further down the line in the public sector.

It showed the benefits and the savings of properly joining services up around individuals and families. And it showed how pulling money and power together in the locality could cut out waste and duplication, and ensure better outcomes for local people.

Yet once the Total Place had been through the Whitehall mincer, and departments had fought tooth and nail to preserve their diminishing money and control, the end product of 16 place based budget pilots ‘for families with complex needs’ is very disappointing.

It is difficult to see at first glance what is different about these pilots from the ‘Think Family’ pilots established in 2007 to join up support and services for the most disadvantaged families - which were amongst the first programmes to be cut earlier this year at the emergency budget.

Launched by then Cabinet Office minister, Ed Miliband, it set out to: “Ensure children get a fair start in life, we must support the needs of the whole family. When vulnerable adults turn to public services, there must be no wrong door to the tailored support they need. Only by effectively co-ordinating children’s and adults’ services to think family will we break the cycle of disadvantage that exists for the most at risk families”. It is difficult to see what the difference will be with these pilots.

But it is the missed opportunity here that is the hardest point to fathom. The Total Place pilots shone a real light on where current structures, systems and cultures of government create waste and duplication through multiple, uncoordinated and duplicated interventions. London Councils estimated that £11bn could be saved in the capital alone – more than is being saved by the child benefit reforms.

Community-based budgets are right to focus on the family as the key to joining up services and as the building block to helping people turn their lives around, particularly as some families can cost the state as much as £250,000 per year. However, the learning from Total Place showed that the opportunities spread far wider than just within families.

There were estimated savings of over 10% in service areas such as worklessness, and pilots indicated that 10% could be saved from asset management budgets. Total Place was to be about the converging of all public resource in an area to improve co-ordination and efficiency. These pilots feel pretty small-scale in comparison to the level of ambition showed by local government.

Optimists might point to these as a small step in the right direction for a civil service that it protectionist, and notoriously difficult to reform. The journey may continue over the years to come, particularly if these programmes demonstrate their worth. The Spending Review did say that “all places may be able to operate these approaches form 2013-14”. It is unclear what that means, however, or how Whitehall will be reshaped to deliver this.

The message to local government is very clear. If you want to re-shape the way you deliver services it is over to you. The problem is that Whitehall is so often the barrier to enabling proper local co-ordination – the hierarchical and vertical structures are unsympathetic to local variation in demand or front-line flexibility of services as they respond to the multiple needs of our citizens.

However, it is certain that we will have to wait a long time again for such an historic spending review that could have taken brave and radical steps to reshaping the way money is spent within our localities.

Anna Turley, deputy director, NLGN

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