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Positioning councils as a solution to problems

Emma Maier
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The government’s top priority is economic growth. But also near the top of the list are family recovery and public sector reform

The coalition’s priority is economic growth, but near the top of the list are family recovery and public sector reform. It is significant that, despite the government’s muddled approach to localism, local government is featuring strongly in discussions about both.

The relationship between the unit and councils’ own work under the community budgets banner remains unclear

Last month it was confirmed that Louise Casey is to run a unit within the Department for Communities & Local Government focusing on ‘problem families’, as reported first by LGC. At this stage the relationship between the unit and councils’ own work under the community budgets banner remains unclear. The unit could signal a shift from council-led, local solutions to a central approach. Or it could champion councils’ successes in Whitehall and help to break down departmental barriers.

The secretary of state has spoken in favour of breaking down silos, and Ms Casey has a reputation for cross-agency working - if not for localism. LGA chair Sir Merrick Cockell has appealed to the unit to heed past lessons and focus on local solutions. For these to prevail, councils must strongly present the achievements of their existing family recovery work rather than argue on the basis of localism for its own sake.

Meanwhile, detail is beginning to emerge on the other half of the community budgets programme - the ‘whole place’ pilots and the neighbourhood-level pilots. The two whole place pilots will examine how all public services in an area can be integrated as a single budget. This is significant: they should be thought of not as part of the localism agenda, which is waning, but as part of the government’s focus on public sector reform.

While it is clear that there is no question of unravelling other reforms, such as police commissioners and the Work Programme, it is notable that the pilots will be able to propose changes to policy and implementation. This offers an opportunity. Whole area budgets could provide the coherence, linking otherwise disjointed policies.

Once again, councils must position themselves as an answer to policy issues, and not rely on calling for localism.

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