This month sees another landmark in the implementation of the pledges we made in the 2001 white paper to extend freedoms and flexibilities to local government.
On 19 May, the 22 'excellent' councils had their chance to discuss the development of additional freedoms in the first meeting of the Innovations Forum.
The forum is an opportunity for the government and councils to explore, through open dialogue, new ways of tackling issues of mutual concern and contributing to delivering better outcomes for local people.
Discussions focused on some of the issues of greatest concern to our communities, covering four key themes. These are citizen-centred local services, care of the elderly, community safety, and school improvement. But what improvements might result from radical freedoms in these areas?
We have said we will work with the 'excellent' councils to overcome barriers preventing them and their partners from developing how services are made available. The aim is for a greater integration of services to allow easier access for local people, increase take-up and improve the services themselves. The forum heard from councils developing this through establishing outlets in leisure centres or libraries which offer access to any service from health care and the police, to aspects of education and employment services, with local outlets offering a smaller range of similar services closer to home, and some provided at home through the internet and digital TV.
The forum considered incentives to more joint working between local government and the NHS to help reduce hospital admissio ns of older people and shorten the average time they stay. The government will look
at how targets for hospital capacity, occupancy and re-admissions are agreed to support overall goals, and avoid any perverse incentives to admit patients.
We will investigate the benefits of giving these councils and their partners greater flexibility to help tackle crime and the fear of crime. Freedoms proposed include streamlining planning requirements affecting partnerships, a single pot of money for community safety, and the extension of freedom and flexibilities to all agencies represented on crime and disorder partnerships. There may also be scope to transfer some functions from the police to councils.
We will look at proposals for new freedoms and flexibilities that will enable 'excellent' councils to address problems in schools which are not improving through existing strategies. Other proposals being considered include allowing councils greater scope to work with others and more flexibility to respond to local circumstances where this is necessary to secure school improvement. The aim is to raise the achievement of the most persistently underperforming and disaffected groups in local areas.
Given the scale and scope of this, the forum will develop a rolling programme that addresses a number of agreed themes in turn. Work on these themes will
be taken forward by the government departments and councils with the principal interest. It is anticipated that many of these themes will cut across the responsibilities of several departments and will involve other bodies.
To make a real difference on the ground, the lessons learned from this work will be disseminated across central and local government and the wider public sector. The Improvement & Development Agency has offered to support the forum through its knowledge website. This will allow participants to keep track of progress, contribute to the development of the themes, monitor overall outputs of work on all of the themes and convey the work of the forum to beyond those immediately involved.
Work on the four themes will now be taken forward in working groups chaired jointly by chief executives from a lead council and a senior government official. I look forward to meeting these councils again in the autumn and seeing the progress made.
The forum shows how serious we are in our intention to give greater freedom and opportunity to local government to succeed. We are determined to carry forward our radical reform plans and we are resolute in our aim of driving up performance standards. I am certain local government shares this objective and look forward to developing the partnership between central and local government to deliver high-quality services.
Local government minister