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Councils are used to working with partners - but there are some who believe this is diluting local democracy, says ...
Councils are used to working with partners - but there are some who believe this is diluting local democracy, says David Blackman

In recent years, councils have got used to having more partners than a Hollywood starlet.

Yet more partnerships are likely to be on the menu when the government outlines guidance on how the second generation of local public service agreements will work before the end of the year. A report presented to this week's meeting of the Local Government Association's social inclusion executive predicts that partnerships will have a more important role in shaping local priorities. Amid the plethora of joint working arrangements, LSPs (see box below right), are the key bodies.

LSPs were set up three years ago to deliver the government's neighbourhood renewal strategy. The Commons urban affairs select sub-committee issued its withering assessment of how the LSPs are working earlier this year. In its report the committee concluded: 'We have received no evidence to suggest that LSPs add value to the regeneration process.'

'We fear they will amount to little more than talking shops.'

Many councillors suspect LSPs are a back-door attempt to dilute local democracy, wrapped up in the cuddly language of community empowerment

London School of Economics emeritus professor of government George Jones is a trenchant critic of partnerships. On a practical level, he says they have saddled officers and councillors with an ever-increasing workload of meetings.

But his underlying concern is that increasing fragmentation of accountability and responsibility is helping to undermine local governance.

'It's all getting more complex and more fragmented.

'How should we hold them publically accountable when there isn't the transparency? We used to attack quangos, but some of these partnerships are quangos.'

Any attempt to shift the community leadership role onto LSPs should be firmly resisted, he says. 'The local authority should have the lead role because it represents a longer term public interest.'

Local Government Information Unit head of policy Ines Newman says there are real benefits to the joint working that the LSPs encourage.

But she adds: 'They are not a substitute for local government and they are not delivery agencies'

Centre for Local Economic Strategies director Neil McInroy says that 'shuffling together' the participatory and representative models of local democracy underpinning LSPs and councils respectively is a key challenge. His regeneration think-tank is now working with Newcastle City Council on plans to integrate the authority's area committees with its local strategic partnership.

LGA programme officer Mona Seghal says LSPs are not to be feared.

'Many of the targets in the national neighbourhood renewal strategy can't be delivered by local authorities,' she says.

She says LSPs can be a valuable way for councils to exert influence.

'It does not have to be about local authorities surrendering their powers, it could be about local authorities expanding their influence.

'You could argue that it is a way of a local authority extending its community leadership role to work with partners by getting people pulling in the same direction.'

Getting partner agencies to sign up to the same objectives opens up greater opportunities for pooling budgets and strategic working, she says.

'It's about setting the direction of travel,' says Brian Stapleton, the director of Croydon's LSP.

Seghal says: 'We are expecting a greater involvement of LSPs in the PSA that local authorities are negotiating with central government because there's clearly more scope for greater partnership working. We think it would create better outcomes on the ground.'

But achieving joined-up government is harder to achieve than it looks on paper. Mr McInroy identifies the accountability of agencies, like the police force and primary care trusts, to national targets set by their Whitehall paymasters as a key hurdle. By contrast, LSPs have little clout, especially those outside of the 88 NRF areas that have no independent funding.

Mr McInroy says. 'If the LSP are going to be significant at the local level, we need more joining up nationally.'

At the most brass tacks level, the majority of LSPs remain entirely dependent on councils, for whom they are a non-statutory responsibility.

Southampton's LSP is an exception in that it has recently secured support from the city's primary care trust. But the local authority remains responsible for 70% of the partnership's running costs.

Mr McInroy says: 'It's local government who are the ones who are putting their hands in their pockets. If people really believe in this thing, they [also] have to start putting their hands in their pockets.'

But LSPs' track record may not inspire confidence.

Even their staunchest champions acknowledge that the LSPs, have had a rocky start.

Rupa Sarkar works for the Urban Forum, the umbrella body for grassroots community groups.

She says the bulk of effort in the past three years has gone into establishing the new organisations. The LSPs have had to rope together groups with widely diverging priorities, including those who have been traditionally marginalised.

British Urban Regeneration Association chair Bernadette Marjoram says: 'The LSPs need to go beyond the usual suspects because they need to go out to hard-to-reach groups who may have not been engaged in the democratic process.'

Ms Sarkar says: 'It's extremely difficult trying to pull together numbers of people living in different places and in very different conditions.

'They had to be talking shops for a while, we are talking about communities that have not had much development.

'We would not call a talking shop a failure, it's a failure if people have become unhappy with talking. It's not a failure if people are still talking.'

Croydon's Brian Stapleton agrees. He says: 'It takes time to build up confidence and trust.'

But talking often means it takes longer for decision to be made. Birmingham C ity Council leader Sir Albert Bore (Lab) blamed long-winded community consultation for the authority's failure to spend more than £2m out of its £15m NRF allocation at the mid-way point of the last financial year. The flipside problem is that some councils have been accused of raiding the neighbourhood renewal fund pot to fund pet projects (see Liverpool box).

Defenders of the programme blame these problems on the rushed way the NRF was introduced and the lack of guidance issued. Ms Sarkar says: 'It was fairly predictable. You were handing money to authorities that have not had a lot of money for a long time and saying you can use these amounts of money fairly flexibly.'

The upshot is that government regional offices are now breathing hard down LSPs' necks to ensure that the money is being spent on time. Authorities are now only permitted to carry forward 10% of their allocations from one financial year to another.

These concerns are especially pressing in the light of the coming comprehensive spending round, which is likely to be New Labour's toughest yet.

The LSPs will have to show that they are delivering real results. Bernadette Marjoram says: 'Their future depends on how effective they are.'

The ODPM has commissioned Warwick University's Professor Mike Geddes to prepare a nationwide evaluation of the LSPs.

Mr McInroy says it is important the government sends out a clear signal to councils about how seriously it takes LSPs given that they must start updating their community strategies. He says it is important that the LSPs outside of the 88 NRF authorities are given some cash.

He says: 'Money is important; it acts as a coagulant to get people working together. Money can fix relationships between different agencies. Without that, it's another meeting.

'I would hope they are going to have a reason for being rather than just talking.'

What is an LSP and what does it do?

???Made up of representatives from the public, private and voluntary sector.

???Make up and membership of each partnership is determined locally.

???Designed to encourage local joined-up government by getting public, private, voluntary and community sector to agree on priorities for action and investment.

???Help to determine the distribution of the neighbourhood renewal fund in the 88 districts judged by the government to contain the worst pockets of poverty.

???Responsible for preparing the community strategy which sets out the blueprint for local priorities.

???Set up following the publication of the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal in 2000.

Sheffield case study

The Sheffield First local strategic partnership was praised by the urban affairs select sub-committee as an example of an LSP that was working well.

The partnership's director Vince Taylor lists its key achievements as a reduction in crime levels and improvements in the city's schools results.

The city has bucked the trend in a recent Ofsted report showing that secondary school results in inner city areas were not improving nationwide. The partnership will next target the performance gap between the worst and best schools in the city.

The partnership has also brought together the local police force and the council to target the city's car crime and burglary hot spots following its recent success in cutting violent crime to the lowest level of any big English city.

He says that the approach of targeting areas is a marked improvement on the old approach the council would have taken. 'The council would have started a programme of putting security measures into all its properties.'

He puts down the partnership's success down to getting the involvement of the 'right people at the right level'.

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