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Cutting through Whitehall resistance

Tony Travers
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Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

The government’s Community Budgets Prospectus could mark a major revolution in the way local public services are controlled and delivered. Alternatively, it might be yet another doomed effort by Department for Communities & Local Government ministers to encourage their spending department colleagues to take part in the pooling of budgets and provision.

Eric Pickles is proposing pilots of both neighbourhood and whole place community budgets

Most of Whitehall has hitherto proved resistant when faced with DCLG ministers who propose ‘total place’ or ‘community budgets’ policies. It is therefore necessary to defer judgment about the likely impact of the prospectus.

Eric Pickles is proposing pilots of both neighbourhood and whole place community budgets. In relation to area-wide pooling of services and resources, the prospectus states: “It is essential that all main local public service partners are willingly signed up to participating in the pilot if the area is successful.” The prospectus also claims: “… these pilots have the backing of the whole government”.

Sadly, the ‘backing of the whole government’ is not the same as, say, the Department for Education requiring schools to take part in a community budget pilot. The need to get all local service providers to sign up “willingly” is surely going to require some top-down strong-arm tactics. The boards and managers of hospital trusts, schools or the local Jobcentre Plus have their own (squeezed) budgets to defend. Whitehall departments need to be given incentives to join up their budgets locally.

Neighbourhood-level community budgets face a different hurdle. In places where there is no parish or community council, it will be necessary to find a new mechanism to deliver both a bid to government and, in the longer-term, community services. Generating such mechanisms will not prove simple. Intriguingly, on page 17 of the prospectus, the government makes clear it will consider proposals from councils to transfer resources (and presumably responsibilities) to areas that are reluctant to take them on.

Teams of civil servants will work with local service providers to deliver the ‘whole area’ pilots. The extent to which these officials are able to deliver genuinely pooled resources and powers will be a test of the government’s resolve. Community budgets are a good idea deserving to be given political priority from the very top of government.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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