The government’s reforms will take people-based services off the balance sheet by seeking alternative forms of provision, initially laid out by testing new forms of funding.
In the context of devolution, the government is minded to introduce single ‘place-based budgets’, which will leave different local service providers supposedly sharing budgets and agreeing on provision at a time when overall public sector funding diminishes.
Authorities’ moves to combine to access government funds and obtain the devolution of Department for Work & Pensions resources have seen activity around supporting people’s routes to employment. This work, integrating a limited range of services, re-establishes the principle of locality working driven by noughties-style service provision around housing management, safer neighbourhood policing, neighbourhood management and children’s centres work with families.
The economic crisis and the de-investment in public services commenced just at the time when those latter pieces of work had the potential to coalesce.
However, the government’s de-ring-fencing of the early intervention grant, formed to foster children’s centres work, led councils to run down this provision rather than attempt to safeguard it by realising efficiencies arising from this coalescence.
The Devo-Manc deal is based on a top-down, managerialist rebuilding of local infrastructure, which originally evolved as a result of frontline experience and responded to need. The challenge now is rebuilding this delivery architecture in more complex geographical and challenging political and economic contexts.
Local authorities’ response to the challenge might require every council to demand a central government tool to incentivise integrated, more productive and efficient local public services.
The noughties’ ‘growth coalitions’ addressed the role for local authorities in promoting growth through the services that they and partners offer and the role they could play in developing growth economies. Central government would provide funding through a single growth coalition. Citizen-centred, local, integrated and strengths-based services were the outcomes.
The local authority’s role should be as the first among equals in the growth coalition, being the source for all local public expenditure. This is the only way the work of local public service providers can be truly incentivised to integrate.
The current trajectory sees a greater demand for costly, complex and disparate services with no collaborative growth focus. The current pointers for services indicate that devolution will take public service providers further away from realising their public service remit. There is a risk that there will soon be a significant crisis in service provision.
Adam Fineberg, analyst and adviser on public services and growth