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Fear that Treasury will focus on savings

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Tensions between Total Place pilots and ministers have emerged as Treasury officials ratchet up the pressure on councils to identify specific savings.

The pilots are due to submit their final reports to the Leadership Centre for Local Government, before being passed on to Sir Michael Bichard’s high-level officials group.

Senior figures said the programme “could be strangled at birth” if the Treasury uses aspirations from them to calculate budget cuts.

Warwickshire CC chief executive Jim Graham said there was “collective concern” among county council chief executives.

“We are worried about pre-emption by the Treasury. If we put hard figures in our report, that could give a clear signal to Treasury officials to say we are going to deliver them. This might mean they take [the money] out of the budget,” said Mr Graham.

In a paper submitted to the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities executive meeting on 27 January, Wigan MBC chief executive Joyce Redfearn said: “Originally the focus of the guidance from central government was around improved outcomes for citizens.

“There is now clear guidance from the Treasury that the report must identify specific savings.”

Shift

PricewaterhouseCoopers local government partner Chris Butress, who has been working closely with the Total Place project, confirmed the shift in focus.

“The issue of efficiency and cost savings has become increasingly prominent in the debate. The headlines are now more about what Total Place will save rather than deliver,” he said.

Reluctance to publish potential efficiency savings figures comes despite a letter from the Treasury’s Helen Bailey and the Department for Communities & Local Government’s Peter Housden last May stating the national report would cover “potential aggregate efficiency savings across all 13 pilots and the service themes examined”.

But pilot leads have urged caution. One said: “I’ve no doubt the pilots will all demonstrate … the opportunity for savings as well as service improvements but we need to be careful if we’re to extrapolate from those individual projects what might be achievable at a global level.”

Fears

Senior Local Government Association officials raised fears last April about how work from the programme would be used by Whitehall.

A report to an LGA officeholders group cited concerns that work from the pilots could “provide ammunition to allow government to dictate an even tougher settlement than might otherwise be the case” (LGC, 23 April 2009).

However, not all Total Place-style projects have been so reticent to deliver hard numbers.

A London Councils-sponsored report calculated that £11bn could be slashed from the capital’s £73.6bn public services bill if significant powers were devolved to councils, and quangos slashed.

The report received a mixed reception from the official pilots. Tom Bracey, Total Place project officer at Dorset CC, said what London had done “could put people off because it has set such a major target, which could cause concern”.

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