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Cuts, localism and incentives

Emma Maier
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No fewer than five secretaries of state signed a letter to community safety partnership chairs to emphasise the importance of local partnership on budget decisions

No fewer than five secretaries of state signed a letter suggesting that councils would continue to provide funding for police community support officers (PCSOs). But this week the Local Government Association said councils should make their own decisions and declined to work with the Home Office to persuade councils to follow suit.

De-ringfencing funding has created a growing disconnect between funding levels and expected outcomes

The situation has prompted claims that local government ministers are not doing enough to represent the sector in Whitehall and highlighted the lack of consideration that some departments are giving to councils’ role in localism. Presumably Greg Clark will address these concerns in the localism progress report that he is due to deliver to David Cameron. But it also illustrates the challenge ahead for councils in reacting.

Councils have led inter-agency working with police and others - many in spite of less enthusiastic, willing or able partners. None would disagree that such place-based decision making is important. But even in the good times, targets and bottom lines inevitably create organisational self-interest, and the perennial challenge is presented when one partner invests but another reaps the benefits.

For all its focus on incentives, government has not managed to overcome this so far. The budget cuts it has imposed - and front-loading in particular - have had exactly the reverse effect, with organisations retreating into their silos as they focus on balancing the books.

Meanwhile, de-ringfencing funding has disconnected funding levels and expected outcomes. Even if there were infinite funds, local partners may choose to work in other ways rather than fund PCSOs. No one said localism was easy.

Ministers’ decision to lobby the LGA both shows holes in their incentives approach and their discomfort at the realities of local decision-making. The response of the LGA, which is no doubt bombarded with similar requests, reflects its commitment to localism, not to mention the impracticality of trying to influence council budgets at the 11th hour.

Councils themselves have two options: make a stand (“no money, no service”), or rise above and find a work-around. The reality is less stark and includes both. The decision, as ever, will be guided by what will deliver the best outcomes for communities in the long term.

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