Communities secretary Eric Pickles has backed community budgets as “one of the best ways to change things”.
Mr Pickles set out his support at a conference devoted to the scheme which seeks to rationalise the way different parts of the public sector work together in local areas in a bid to save money.
Viewed as a key way to address the budget cuts facing local government and other public services, the project has so far focused on four pilot areas in Essex, west London, Greater Manchester and West Cheshire. Each have produced business plans for how services could be redesigned.
Mr Pickles admitted the project had been described at the start as “brave - as in fool hardy”, but said he had “been impressed in the way that different organisations have risen to this”.
Indicating government support for the pilots’ business cases, which were submitted to ministers last month, he said “we are going to keep working with these four areas to make sure we are really able to do this” as well as supporting others in learning from their experience.
Mr Pickles said that “colleagues across government are up to it”, he said, before admitting that “some are more up to it some are less up to it”. However, he added: “We have managed to breach some of the old local government, central government fault lines – that has been one of the success stories of this process.”
Mr Pickles revealed he had at first been very sceptical of the figures presented in the pilot area business cases when they were submitted last month. At first he thought he was “being given the soft shoe shuffle” because the figures “were too good to be true”, he said. After seeing a “forensic audit” to check the sums added up, Mr Pickles said he was “amazed to say they do”.
Sir Bob Kerslake, the permanent secretary of the Department for Communities & Local Government who is also responsible for reform of the civil service, said the redesign of public services along the lines set out by the pilot areas would be a challenge for Whitehall which operated in “silos” and was built on a “federal model”.
“Whitehall needs to change as much if not more [as local government] if this is going to work,” he said. “We need to be more joined up and we need to trust more in the ability of local places to deliver better outcomes, but the more specific, the more grounded, the more precise the asks the more likely we are to get change.”
Sir Merrick Cockell, chair of the LGA which has taken a lead role in the community budget work, also spoke at the conference, revealing that he had not initially been convinced by the community budget idea, he had since changed his mind.
“I was, and continued for some time to be, although I did not say it publicly, pretty sceptical about community budgets,” he said, later adding: “I now see their potential”.
Sir Merrick, left, said there were “specific examples” of what government departments needed to do to deliver. “For government ministers there are choices about what they can do to unlock this new way of working. The pilots plans require changes in the way different organisations work together, changes to the way money flows around the system and indeed changes to the way it is controlled from Whitehall.”
Sir Merrick said the specific asks of Whitehall were:
- a three year settlement for clinical commissioning groups, Department of Health
- variations to national tariffs, DH
- new reimbursement model, DH
- local, employer led strategic direction over vocational skills budgets, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills
- payment by results for skills providers based on job outcomes in the local economy, BIS
- investment to scale up pilot projects to reduce reoffending in troubled families, Ministry of Justice, Department for Work & Pensions, DH