Within the last week, councils across the country have been submitting their final local area agreements for government approval. These are the documents that some believe could herald sweeping new freedoms for local government.
The government regional office directors will make their recommendations to central government with ministerial sign-off due in June. An announcement is expected from communities secretary Hazel Blears at the Local Government Association conference in early July.
So how has the LAA process gone? And what light do the negotiations shed on the current state of central/local relations?
The government proclaims that LAAs are “helping to devolve decision making, move away from a ‘Whitehall knows best’ philosophy and reduce bureaucracy”. The Department for Communities & Local Government guidance says that priorities will be agreed following negotiation between central and local government, which originated the concept of an over-arching local/central agreement.
However, the noises offstage suggest that the negotiations have, as could have been expected, not run entirely smoothly in this new world of devolution.
A progress report on the LAAs, submitted to the Local Government Association’s improvement board last week, says there have been some tensions in negotiations, particularly around the areas of teenage pregnancy, net additional homes and preventing violent extremism. All three flashpoints reflect Whitehall priorities. South-east county councils have come under pressure to adopt indicators on new homes provision.
Phil Coppard, chief executive of Barnsley MBC, says: “There have been significant areas of difficult negotiations, like teenage pregnancies, where the government has radical targets that they are trying to deliver.”
But the pressure to adopt targets has come from across government. The Department for Children, Schools & Families has been putting last minute pressure on councils to ensure its priorities are mirrored in their LAAs. Even the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs traditionally one of Whitehall’s weaker ministries has been successfully exerting pressure. The LGA’s table (see box) indicates a growing focus by LAA partnerships on climate change issues, with targets for per capita reductions in CO2 emissions.
Guy Swindle, head of special projects at Barking & Dagenham LBC, admits that his authority had a tough task persuading the Government Office for London that the climate change indicator should not feature in its LAA. The east London authority argued that reducing carbon emissions cannot be achieved with the scale of housed growth planned in the Thames Gateway area.
Sustainability is an important issue for the council, which was awarded beacon status last year for its work on climate change. But Mr Swindle argues that even with the best will in the world it will be impossible to cut emissions when the area is in the throes of a massive regeneration programme yielding thousands of new homes even if they are built to the highest eco-standards.
“Clearly the expectation is that this is going to increase carbon emissions. We have much more important priorities like improving schools,” he says.
Another headache was DEFRA’s inability to decide on its own priorities at a corporate level, he says. While one part of the organisation was telling Barking to make recycling an LAA priority, another was putting pressure on to include the carbon emissions indicator.
The experience of Barking and other authorities suggests that taking a robust position, backed up by good evidence, has paid off in the LAA negotiations.
“It’s the ability of chief executives to hold the government offices to account and revert them back to the story of place,” says Rachel Thompson, the Improvement & Development Agency’s national adviser on LAAs.
But sometimes, suggests Mr Swindle, Whitehall has not understood the LAA script. He gives as an example the issue of adult social care. “It’s a corporate priority, but because we are doing quite well, we didn’t feel that we needed to have it in the our LAA,” he says, explaining that Barking wanted to focus on areas where improvement was needed.
Hertfordshire CC chief executive Caroline Tapster echoes Mr Swindle’s views. She says: “We had a very poor review on children’s services. Therefore the government office and the Department for Children, Schools & Families were insisting that we include a number of very specific care indicators to indicate that we were serious about improvement in that area.”
In this instance, she says, the LAA did not provide an appropriate vehicle because it is designed to focus on issues which can benefit from joint working by local partners.
Local bodies, meanwhile, have united in the face of the common Whitehall “foe”, adds Merrick Cockell (Con), leader of Kensington & Chelsea RBC. “We have a very good strategic partnership,” he says.
Despite his disagreements with the Government Office for London, Mr Swindle is encouraged by the extent to which the devolution penny has dropped in the top tiers of central government. “We have been involved as an LAA pilot authority and we feel that the majority of senior people share the vision. We have more frustrations with people further down the hierarchy,” he says.
David Clark, director-general of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, agrees that there is no clear pattern of support or resistance to LAAs in central government.
“In Whitehall, there are believers and non-believers,” he says. “But it’s quite hard for Whitehall to do locality-based work. It depends on how well they understand the area. People in regional offices have to do a lot of learning whereas people in local government know their localities.”
Barnsley’s Mr Coppard says: “They have to achieve public service agreement targets but what they are trying to do is for us to achieve their targets.”
However, Mr Swindle is generally pleased with the experience so far. “It represents a sea change compared to how government has dealt with local government over the last 20 years. This is our opportunity to get on the front foot and get things done.”
More of an issue, suggests Ms Thompson, is that the time for quantifying indicator targets has been squeezed over the talks over which ones to include. “There has been too much focus on the indicators and not enough on the target setting,” she says.
This issue could be compounded by the poor quality of benchmarks being used for many of the indicators, adds Mr Coppard. “Some of the targets will be difficult to achieve because of the way they are measured, like that for reduction in child poverty. We are never going to achieve targets unless we know how we are going to meet them.”
Now the talking is over, councils are entering the riskier but potentially more rewarding territory of delivery.
How will LAAs work?
Each LAA is a three-year agreement hammered out between central government and the key public agencies working in a given area
The LAA itself will include no more than 35 indicators chosen from a list of 198 targets identified by the DCLG
Councils will receive an area-based grant which is not tied to specific programmes
A£340m LAA reward grant is available for good performance against the LAA
How many indicators?
The average number of indicators in an LAA agreement is 33, with one council understood to have selected just eight.
Others are also limiting the number. “We have tried to have as few indicators as possible,” says Kensington & Chelsea RBC leader Merrick Cockell (Con). The inner London borough has ended up with an agreement from the Government Office for London that it should have just 15 indicators.
“If you don’t have a target for something that doesn’t mean that it’s not a priority for you. The idea that a good local authority needs a regime to perform does not stand up,” he says. Kensington & Chelsea has set its
own indicators to measure performance on the issues that it considers to be important, he adds.
Top 10 indicators
1 16 to 18 year olds who are not in education, employment or training (117 agreements with councils)
2 Under 18 conception rate (107)
3 Per capita reductions in CO2 emissions across the local authority area (103)
4 Number of affordable homes delivered (103)
5 Obesity among primary school age children in year six (99)
6 Proportion of adult population qualified to level two or above (97)
7 Serious acquisitive crime rate (96)
8 Net additional new homes provided (90)
9 Stopping smoking (89)
10 Percentage of people who believe people from different ethnic backgrounds get on together (86)