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Moving forward with community budget pilots

Dan Drillsma-Milgrom
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How should we judge the work of the four ‘whole place’ community budget pilots when they submit their final business cases next week?

Trying to set a yardstick for something that’s never been done before is always tricky.

Perhaps we should start with the community budget prospectus, published a year ago last week, which said the following about what success would look like:

“By October 2012 each pilot area will have developed an operational plan which sets out what a single budget, or options for pooling and aligning resources, for the place would look like, the outcomes that would be delivered, governance arrangements, the redesign of services required to achieve the outcomes and how new financial approaches would work. It will identify what would need to happen locally to implement the options identified and what would need to be changed centrally.”

Much of this does indeed look like it’s been achieved. But the first clause is perhaps the most relevant. It certainly doesn’t seem likely that any pilot has come up with a plan to run all public services from one budget.

More realistically, are there plans that set out options for pooling and aligning resources?

Well if Greater Manchester is anything to go by, there are clearly some individual projects where pilots are ready to get down to the nitty gritty of how costs and benefits of redesigned public services should be apportioned between partners.

So against the stated aims, it looks like the pilots will have a decent story to tell.

But there’s always been a little extra hype around the community budget programme. The Total Place work done by the previous administration gave councils a tantalising glimpse of a world in which councils were the primus inter pares in a world of pooled budgets and joint strategic plans.

Indeed, the pooling of budgets became something of a totemic issue. Minute of meetings of a cross-Whitehall group chaired by Lord Bichard last March bemoaned the fact none of the original 16 pilots had been able to specify which budget lines they intended to pool.

The fact that now, a year and a half later, a much smaller group of councils working much more intensively are only just ready to begin talking about truly aligning budgets shows the glibness of the original plans as well as the task facing those who see community budgets as being part of the solution to the challenges of the next spending review.

Nevertheless, Ministers should continue to support the pilots. They have some good ideas. Greater Manchester is set to unveil some concrete suggestions around accountability, for example. Now that the first phase of the work is almost done, perhaps a second deadline of next spring by which these ideas should be ready for action should be set?

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