Strengthening democracy and participation: routes to re-connection and engagement – a provocation

Catherine Durose

This post is based on a provocation which I posed at INLOGOV’s recent Summer Symposium. It is an attempt to move on the conversation about engagement between local government, other public institutions, citizens and communities.

It is unlikely that anyone attending the Symposium – or indeed, probably reading the INLOGOV blog – has not had a conversation about either the desire or difficulty of re-connecting government and other public institutions with local communities and citizens. We may agree that this is an important conversation to have, but why is it one that we keep having? Why despite years of this issue being high on the policy agenda and the subject of so much academic research, why does it feel like little has changed?

A common response is that this lack of change is the fault of citizens: there is little appetite from citizens to engage, they are apathetic.

What is often neglected, is that apathy (which we could question in and of itself) is generative, it is a response to opportunities to participate which are often what Arnstein calls ‘empty rituals’ but it is also caused by a repeated undermining of citizens’ sense of agency and efficacy: as one activist said to me recently, ‘we felt we were being done to, over and over again’.

The reason that many of the attempts to ‘re-connect’ that come from local government feel stale, over- and misused, cynically applied, ineffective, and superficial; is because they often are, it is an appropriate reaction.

So how can we shift the conversation, using the words of Archon Fung, what are the ‘vision and grammar’ of alternative ways to re-connect: what are the principles and design that may move the conversation on a different way?

We may want to think about:


  • Principles: how do we see democracy and accountability working in localism, it is about building consensus or allowing space for contesting power and creating alternatives? What are the underlying values that we are seeking to advance? What kind of world do we want to create?


  • Intermediaries (boundary spanners, civic entrepreneurs, community organisers, deliberative practitioners, active citizens, 21st century public servants): who are those individuals who are able to build ‘vital coalitions’ to make things happen and get things done in neighbourhoods and communities? How can we support and facilitate their work?
  • Organisational change: How can we challenge a culture in local government that often struggles to let go, where officers and members thinks they’re in charge, second guesses, patronises the public, but also to find a starting point for a conversation that resonates with people?
  • Institutional design: What are the democratic potentialities in institutional design? Do we need to start with a perfect design or can we work it out along the way? Can we mix, match and merge?
  • Tools: Can a different medium be a different message? Can using spatial or visualisation tools, geo-apps help to change the parameters of the conversation and let citizens shout a little louder?

How can we use these different ideas to go from the inspiring, yet marginal, to the ‘new normal’?

Related blogs from the Summer Symposium can be read here


duroseDr Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer in INLOGOV and Director of Research for the SChool of Government and Society at the University of Birmingham.  She is co-author of the forthcoming book, ‘Re-thinking public policy: why co-production matters?’ for Policy Press.




Re-valuing The Public

Teresa L. Córdova

When we are on the ground getting the policies implemented, or perhaps even making the policies, we focus on doing what we can get done. One of our first questions is, “what are the constraints, the limits of what is possible (or probable), given current fiscal conditions, regulatory structures, or political dynamics.” In focusing on getting done what is more likely in our power to influence, we might also make the decision to leave the more difficult – or nearly unattainable – goals behind. Working under conditions of limited government resources, our focus might be to accept the constraints of the “changing times” and focus our efforts on budgets, minimizing as much as we can, cuts to vital services. We might implement strategies for “efficiency,” introduce new technologies, or shift organizational structures. We work with what we got; we adapt; we innovate. As politician, as manager, as innovator, as activist, we act with the best of intentions. It makes sense; it is a way for good-minded people to be engaged, to contribute.

Does it also make sense to evaluate our choices to engage in these ways? Does it make sense to ask about the implications of given actions as to whether they contribute to solutions or unintentionally exacerbate the problems? How might our choices with respect to local governance, for example, strengthen or weaken our mechanisms to govern ourselves in ways that promote the collective good? Because if we look closer, we can make the connection between the conditions that exist at the level of local governance (i.e. insufficient revenue and decreasing ability to deliver) as part and parcel of the same set of dynamics that are creating disparities that threaten the foundational fabric of our communities.

Though we may be at the ground level attempting to sustain both the public sector and its value to local governance, we might remember that the cuts to public sector budgets didn’t just happen. There are economic interests that with their power have directed wealth to themselves through tax and regulatory policies – thus depleting the revenue base of the public while adding to its costs. The concentrated wealth does not however, make its way to job creation and shared benefits. Instead, anti-government rhetoric makes government itself the scapegoat and further erodes the public’s belief that government should be valued. All of this makes way, for the further privatization of government functions and policies that serve, not the public interest necessarily, but the drive for generating profit through the administration of those functions, e.g. prison industrial complex in the U.S.

Under conditions of our stewardship with its limited power, how might we sharpen our abilities to get at the root cause for the conditions we face, perhaps change, but at least not make worse? We might ask, does our approach to democracy and local governance strengthen the collective good or take us to the door of furthering the demise of the public sector, or more to the point – the public’s commitment to itself. Hopefully, the desire to salvage from what is possible does not deliver us deeper into the entrenched logic of furthering the concentration and centralization of power, decision-making and wealth. The choices that we make in how to address conditions of reduced revenue streams, new technology and pressures for privatization will either reinforce the very forces that create those conditions – or challenge them. We need to pay attention to our policy choices, their logical extension and their implications. Articulating values of the collective good, making way for multiple stakeholders, working in coalitions and partnering with citizen organizations are among the strategies that we can employ to re-create – and strengthen the public, for the public.



Teresa L. Córdova, Ph.D. is Professor in Urban Planning and Director of The Great Cities Institute, representing UIC’s Great Cities Initiative and commitment to its Urban Mission.  Professor Córdova is an applied theorist and political economist whose focus is community development and Latino Studies.  She approaches her work as a scholarship of engagement in which her research, pedagogy and service are integrated.  She studies the impacts of globalization on Latino communities with particular interest in global/local dynamics.  Throughout the span of her academic career, Professor Córdova has engaged with communities outside the university and is an expert in community/university partnerships.

Localisation of the Discretionary Social Fund – from cash loans to food stamps and Asda cards

Chris Game

Two recent Japanese visitors to INLOGOV included among their ‘etiquette gifts’ a set of Furusato or prefecture stamps – postage stamps produced to promote local government in, in this case, Hyogo, one of the 47 prefectures that are the equivalent of our counties. The stamps are attractive and easy to admire, and we inevitably wondered out loud how much Birmingham – or even the West Midlands region, whose 5.6 million population is similar to Hyogo’s – might pay for a similar PO issue .

Not out loud, I also wondered about mentioning that by coincidence some of our local authorities too would shortly be launching their own sets of stamps. But, with these being not pretty promotional ones, but wartime-echoing food stamps, I decided against it. But I will do here.

So many welfare and tax changes are being introduced at the start of this financial year that, apart obviously from planning how to spend the 5% tax cut on our £150,000+ incomes, it’s genuinely hard to keep track of them all. Almost all the changes, moreover, are controversial, which probably partly explains why the abolition or localisation of much of the Discretionary Social Fund (DSF) – a vital but admittedly small part of the total welfare system – has received less, and less critical, attention than it should have done.

The Social Fund was set up in the 1980s, to provide interest-free loans and grants through both a regulated scheme and a cash-limited discretionary scheme. There are four regulated fund payments: cold weather, winter fuel and funeral payments, and Sure Start maternity grants. These will continue, and the Social Fund itself, therefore, is not being abolished.

The discretionary scheme is intended to be the final welfare safety net – the safety net’s safety net, as it were – and it comprises three distinct elements. Budgeting Loans, the largest element, are interest-free loans for people on benefits who have difficulty managing intermittent expenses such as the replacement of white goods and household items, and who might otherwise turn to loan sharks.

Community Care Grants are non-repayable grants, conditional on receipt of income-related benefit, and intended to help vulnerable people – young people leaving a children’s home or foster care, women fleeing from domestic violence – to return to or remain in the community, or to ease exceptional pressure following a family breakdown or other emergency.

Crisis Loans are modest, interest-free loans available to anyone, whether on benefit or not. Applicants must show that, following an unforeseen emergency or disaster, they or their family cannot meet immediate short-term needs and would otherwise face serious risk to their health or safety. Loans, already being ‘managed back’ to pre-2006 levels, before telephone claims were introduced, are restricted to what are defined as essential items.

All three elements will now change, but in different ways. Budgeting Loans will become Budgeting Advances, provided as now by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and, for those eligible, will gradually be incorporated into Universal Credit. It’s the other two – Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans – that particularly concern us here, for it is these that are actually being abolished, with funding being made available to English local authorities (and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales) to enable them to provide new locally-administered assistance to vulnerable groups, under existing powers.

Mark those last three words. They may sound harmless, but they’re crucial. They mean that councils have no new statutory duty to provide any specific form of support, for some of the poorest and most marginalised members of our society, out of funding that is not ‘ring-fenced’, and at a time when their diminishing resources are already under the acutest pressure.

Ministerial guidance to councils is expressed in questionable English, but impeccably localist rhetoric. “The Government has decided it would not be appropriate to place a new duty on local authorities in respect of the new provision you are planning. You need to be able to flex the provision in a way that is suitable and appropriate to meet the needs of your local communities.”

Even Ministers, though, acknowledge that it’s much more about savings than about ‘flexing provision’: “It will mean that individuals will have to take more responsibility in managing their own finances and plan for their future, rather than building up benefit debts they can ill afford.” You local councils, in other words, must be even tougher that we in central government have been. And, by the way, we no longer accept any responsibility for this ultimate safety net of our supposedly national welfare system.

It’s similar to what’s happening with Council Tax Benefit: systems run till now by the DWP being transferred to local authorities, but with significant reductions in funding and minimal preparation time. In both cases, localisation is a good principle which in time should provide more efficient, more responsive and more integrated services for local residents. But here in Birmingham, for example, the Council has been expected to devise and launch a scheme of ‘back-stop’ local welfare provision, with all its attendant criteria and considerations – eligibility rules, forms of assistance, degrees of discretion, advice to unsuccessful applicants, appeals procedures, and, of course, action if or when the money runs out – with ‘start-up’ funding of just over ₤60,000.

Naturally, councils have been ‘flexing’ their own schemes and coming up with differing solutions.  Some will issue charity food parcels; others plan to give cash grants to food banks to enable them to employ full-time staff and extend opening hours. A minority will continue the practice of cash payments for specified emergency items, or maybe low-interest (rather than interest-free) loans with local credit unions. It’s clear, though, that most have opted, more or less reluctantly, for what generically seem likely to become known as ‘food stamps’: not cash loans, but one-off vouchers redeemable for a list of approved goods, such as food and nappies.

Birmingham’s Labour council has negotiated its own, to date unique, form of voucher scheme, outlined in its publication – Local Welfare Provision (LWP): What is happening in Birmingham from April 2013?  The ‘provision’ is described initially in terms of ‘awards’ and ‘grants’, but by page 3 it becomes clear, in the boldest type, that one big thing that’s happening is that “There will be no cash alternative as part of the LWP scheme”. What there will be, for successful applicants “in crisis”, are pre-paid Asda cards, enabling the purchase of emergency food and essentials – as opposed to, although they’re not actually mentioned, tobacco, alcohol, phone-related items, and other undesirables.

Quite apart from the inflexibility and inconvenience of prepaid cards, and the almost predictable technical teething problems, there are obviously some pretty hefty principles involved in this cash-to-cards switch – enough indeed to justify a blog in their own right. As refugee support agencies and human rights organisations have argued over the years, they’re potentially humiliating, stigmatising, socially marginalising, and ultimately infantilising.

And yet (you can probably guess what’s coming next) it’s the so far exclusive deal with Asda – scarcely involving a genuine point of principle at all – that has attracted all the media attention and a public ‘clarification’ by the Council, who say they’re also in negotiation with a wide range of other retailers. We shall see, but my personal bet is that, unless they sign up a good few others pdq, they’ll acquire, and find it very difficult to lose, the adhesive tag of ‘the Asda council’ – the one consolation being that they won’t need to spend too much on publicising the scheme.

Note: Earlier (and longer) version of this article posted by our fine colleagues at The Chamberlain Files.



Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Street names – Mid Devon fails Birmingham’s comma sense test

Chris Game

Mid Devon District Council has just had to reprint and re-issue tens of thousands of council tax demands, after sending the majority of its taxpayers bills for up to £5 more than they were due to pay.  A hapless council officer had miscalculated the parish precept part of the bills, thereby costing the council an estimated £12,000 in re-billing charges.

A pretty big deal, you might think – one that would surely top the agenda at this week’s cabinet meeting.  But you’d be wrong. Sure, folks are annoyed and the Council’s taken some flak, but the annoyance and flak over this expensive and embarrassing boo-boo are NOTHING compared with the literally global outcry prompted by the Council’s announcement that it was planning to formalise its street naming guidelines by, among other things, avoiding in new street names and signs “all punctuation, including apostrophes”.

Yes, I’m fully aware we’re approaching April 1st, but I promise you, this is serious stuff. The professionals, or obsessionals, set the pace. The Apostrophe Protection Society thought it “appalling, disgusting, pointless”. The Plain English Society was less hesitant, and in very plain English wondered, after the “murder” of the apostrophe, “where’s it going to stop? Are we going to declare war on commas, outlaw full stops?”

Then the locals leapt in – the obligatory quote from the Exeter University Eng lit lecturer; a tweet from Exeter MP and former Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, who, if encouraged, would tweet about his breakfast; and the local politician, with a beautifully crafted own goal. The Mayor of Tiverton Town Council, possibly still peeved by the fact that, when first invented in 1974, the meaningless ‘Mid Devon’ was in fact Tiverton District, thought “it’s ridiculous just to remove them” (they weren’t; the proposal was for new street names only). “If for example Blundell’s Road belongs to Blundell then it should have an apostrophe.”

Precisely. And, if it no longer does, then presumably it shouldn’t. Blundell’s Road and Avenue in Tiverton are two of only about four currently apostrophised street names in the whole Mid Devon district. They are named after the extremely rich 16th Century merchant, Peter Blundell, but probably never actually belonged to him, and certainly don’t today. Game and set, one would think, to the Mid Devon reformers, but sadly, as we shall see, not the match.

By now, any Birmingham readers will have recalled that we went through all this sound and fury back in 2009, when the City Council similarly decided to formalise what had become conventional practice and remove all apostrophes from those place and street names that still, sometimes and arbitrarily, retained them. The author of the policy was a Lib Dem councillor for Moseley and Kings Heath ward and Chair of the Transportation Scrutiny Committee, Martin Mullaney.

Mullaney’s initial concern was to get a ruling on Kings Heath and Kings Norton, which wasn’t easy. The Gazetteer of British Place Names, for example, refuses even to recognise any such place name without a possessive apostrophe, if there’s any chance at all that it might once have warranted one. So Acock’s Green (another Birmingham ward) remains apparently the possession of one member of the Acock family, Druid’s Heath (in the same South Birmingham area) the playground of a single druid, and King’s Heath and King’s Norton are treated as if they were still part of the property portfolio of a monarch who flogged them off more than two centuries ago.

To any right-thinking person this is barmy, and thankfully the City Council had long recognised it as such.  Some decades previously, it had followed the lead of the Americans (of course) and several other English-speaking countries and dropped the possessive apostrophe completely from Birmingham place names – though more in the interests of convenience and economy than of improving historical or grammatical logic.

And to me, convenience or what one might call comma sense, are the key points in this particular debate. On the whole, I’m pretty keen on using punctuation properly and observing its rules. I don’t want, as the Plain English Campaign puts it, to “murder” the apostrophe, or any other punctuation mark. I’ve no wish to be rid of it altogether, even though it’s often more trouble than it’s worth (despite the potential confusion between it’s and its, you’d still understand this sentence, even if I’d left out all six apostrophes), and in the real world is on its way out anyway. It’s the possessive pronoun in names and signs, not its ‘omission’ purpose of signalling missing letters, that I’d do away with.

We know from linguistic historians that the apostrophe’s use to signify possession, as opposed to indicating letters omitted, is a punctuation oddball – a latecomer, essentially in the 19th Century, owing more to printers than grammarians, with rules that are never clear cut and frequently unknowable. Why, to pick just one example, no apostrophe with possessive pronouns – hers, his, yours, ours, its – but with the possessive of some indefinite pronouns – one’s, anyone’s, somebody’s?

When it comes to names, if, in order to use the apostrophe correctly, you need to research the life history of the person or place (as with Tiverton’s Peter Blundell), or know the chosen corporate preference of the company, then you’re better off without it. I think it was Queens College that decided me. As an academic, I happen to know that it’s The Queen’s College, Oxford and Queens’ College, Cambridge. And the reason – come on, pay attention there! – is that the former was founded in honour of one Queen (Philippa of Hainault – the then French one, not the East London one), while the latter commemorates the two Queens of Henry VI and Edward IV. Yes, I’m not certain even Michael Caine knows that.

Companies, sports stadia and the like are even trickier. If you’re pro-apostrophe, you’ve got Sainsbury’s with you and Morrisons against you; Blackwell’s with you, Foyles and, since last year, Waterstones against; McDonald’s for, Harrods, Selfridges and Starbucks against; Lord’s (cricket ground) for, Ladbrokes against; St Andrew’s (Birmingham City) and St James’ Park (Newcastle) for, St James Park (Exeter) against.

Which brings us back to Birmingham.  In 2009 the Council attracted just the same OTT outrage and ridicule as Mid Devon has. Councillor Mullaney got himself on New Zealand television, and similarly Mid Devon has been reported and mocked by the Belfast Telegraph, the Canberra Times and Newstrack India. The big difference has been that, whereas Councillor Mullaney and Birmingham City Council stood their ground, went ahead and abolished, their Mid Devon counterparts have rather pathetically caved in.

The Council’s Conservative Leader, hyphenated Peter Hare-Scott, having reviewed the situation, decided against taking on the out-of-town punctuation fascists, and, when Agenda Item 4(c): Street Naming and Numbering comes up, will recommend that the Cabinet “amend the policy so that street names may in future have apostrophes”. Eric Pickles for one will be pleased. A spokesman from the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “Whilst this is ultimately a matter for the local council, ministers’ view is that England’s apostrophes should be cherished.”  Their view of Conservative-led councils who cost their hard-working taxpayers money by miscalculating their council tax demands isn’t recorded

Note: A version of this blog post appeared previously on


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The Budget Red Book – the small print containing local government’s big headlines

Chris Game

I do love Wikipedia. It being Budget Week, I thought I’d check out what it had to say about the Red Book, as the documented version of the Chancellor’s Financial Statement and Budget Report is generally known among those to whom these things matter. As ever, it had plenty – almost 50 separate entries.

I skipped the music – Bacharach and David’s (and Manfred Mann’s) ‘My Little Red Book’; also Mao’s pocketbook of catchy quotations, Monty Python’s Big Red Book, and the notorious 1969 Danish-originated and UK-prosecuted Little Red School Book of practical advice to young people on how to do sex and drugs. ‘Reference manuals’ seemed more promising, and there are Red Books aplenty on landscape gardens, fire-service training, paediatric infectious diseases, and much else besides. But no mention of the UK Treasury, nor indeed of the Bank of England’s entirely separate ‘Red Book’, its money market manual with which the Treasury’s publication is occasionally confused.  So, characteristically entertaining, Wiki, but this time, no cigar!

The Red Book I was after – Budget 2013, to give it its official title – is where you go to check exactly what the Chancellor said, or meant, and the story and statistics underpinning it all.   It’s obviously primarily about the national economy, and much of it is beyond me, or at least beyond my interest. But this year I reckon there are two or three items that between them constitute the 120-point headlines for local government over the coming few years.

First, not exactly a headline, but an updated and always useful reminder for those of us seeking to educate people about the realities of UK local government: that, of every £1 we pay in tax, over 95% goes to the central Exchequer, and less than 5p or 5% to our local councils – compared to between 12% and 18% in France, Italy and Austria, and between 20% and 32% in Finland, Denmark, Spain, Germany and Sweden.


In fact, the figures in the chart on p.6 of the Red Book show that Eric Pickles’ largely effective attempts to freeze council tax have reduced its contribution to total government receipts from a figure that in 2010-11 rounded up to 5% to today’s just 4.4%. This, however, is about as low as it’s likely to go, as the inflation calculations of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) are assuming a 2% annual increase in council tax from next year, no matter how much Mr P or his successors may protest.

All that means, though, is that ‘locally financed current expenditure’ will constitute a fractionally higher proportion of a steadily, and increasingly alarmingly, falling total. The immediate and upfront task of the Budget was to ‘fix the envelope’ for total government spending for 2015-16, prior to the publication of individual departmental budgets in June. But for local government I’d suggest this Budget’s real headlines are embedded in the Government’s updated assumptions beyond 2015-16:

“In line with previous policy, this Budget sets a fiscal assumption that TME [Total    Managed Expenditure] in 2016-17 and 2017-18 will continue to fall in real terms at               the same rate as over the Spending Review 2010 period.” (para. 1.59)

So, more of the same, for longer than we were fearing – it’s hardly good news, but alarming?  Certainly, there’s no alarmism in the explanatory Red Book text, but that’s because the actual figures, and particularly those for 2017-18, are revealed only in the supplementary tables at the end. The key lines are in Table B.4 on p.103, and I’m afraid they probably require – at least for those readers a bit hazy about the precise meaning of ‘PSCE in RDEL’ – an embarrassingly over-simplified introduction to some of the jargon used by Resource Accountants and Budget wallahs.


Public Sector Current Expenditure (PSCE) is divided into two categories, according to the degree to which it is controllable within three-year spending cycles by the Government departments responsible for it. For their supposedly controllable expenditure, departments must account to the Treasury against Departmental Expenditure Limits (DELs), the Resource DEL (RDEL) being current expenditure – pay, running costs – and also some non-cash items, like depreciation.

Departments are also responsible, though, for Annually Managed Expenditure (AME) – demand-led spending, like social security benefits, tax credits, central government debt interest, and, of course, locally-financed council spending – for which departments can’t be held accountable in the same way, and which therefore doesn’t form part of their DELs or of Spending Review settlements.

You can see immediately what’s been going on, and will continue to go on, and to an escalating degree, well into the next Parliament.  TME will carry on rising annually in cash (though not in real) terms, solely through the AME expenditures that the Government can’t actually stop, while RDELs take all the hits – down by £3.6 billion in 2014-15, then a further £3.1 billion in 2015-16, £6.8 billion in 2016-17, and £8.3 billion in 2017-18.

Dramatic as these figures are, they don’t in themselves capture the suddenness and severity of the U-turn forced upon this controlled element of public expenditure since 2010-11. For that you need a graph, of the kind produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in one of their admirable post-Budget analyses.


In the words of the IFS’ own summary (p.11): “Departmental spending [is] forecast to be cut by more than 18% in real terms from its 2010-11 level by 2017-18 – [that is] back to around 2002-03 level of real spending and pre-1998 level as % of national income”.

We’re still, though, talking about all departmental current spending – and in the present context misleadingly, for since the 2010 Spending Review several major expenditure heads have been and will continue to be either frozen or ‘protected’: notably, Overseas Development Assistance, ‘front-line’ NHS spending, plus spending on schools, 16-19 participation, and Sure Start. The impact of this service apartheid on what finance expert, Tony Travers, calls “the unloved and unprotected” – local government, defence, the police, fire, transport, business services – made itself felt immediately, and has been modelled through to 2017-18 in another IFS analysis.

We are looking at a real terms drop in total RDEL spending between 2010-11 and 2017-18 of 16.9%. Within that figure, though, spending on the NHS would have increased by 2.9%, on schools by 0.6%, and on the albeit modest-sized aid budget by 41.7% – while that on the unprotected remainder would have fallen by 31.5% (p.12). Local government from the outset has been among the most “unloved and unprotected” and, as Travers notes, “if capital spending becomes a greater priority, the impact on revenue spending within the unprotected part of DEL will be greater still. It now seems likely that local government … will face a real terms reduction of at least 50 per cent in expenditure over the period to 2017-18” – .

With figures like these, there is no need to speculate about the consequences of the Chancellor’s economic growth projections proving once again to be overly optimistic. Even if they’re right, the unavoidable truth is that local government as a sector and (remaining) local councils individually will be organised and will operate in fundamentally different ways from in the past, and, while there wasn’t a great deal in the Budget to cheer about, there were perhaps, again tucked away in the Red Book, some more positive headlines of what those different ways of operating might look like.

In, as it happens, the paragraph (1.58) immediately preceding the one about the Government’s fiscal assumptions beyond 2015-16, we read about the need for “ongoing reform of public services”:

“The four areas that participated in the recent Whole Place Community Budget pilots   estimate that they can save £800 million over five years by implementing their plans. To support the local adoption of similar approaches, the Government is establishing a new multi-agency network and will announce plans to extend the benefits of this approach across the country at the 2015-16 Spending Round.”

Oh dear! That £800 million: so big, so rounded, so headlineable – and so suspect.  Sometimes, fierce competition though there is, the Government’s own worst enemy can be itself. The figure appears to come from – though I’m fairly sure doesn’t actually appear in – the National Audit Office (NAO) review of the four Whole-Place Community Budget pilots that had been published the previous week. The report, as would be expected from the NAO, is a good one: thorough, insightful, critical, cautious, and constructive – but not shouty.

In Budget Week, however, the Government decided it needed shouty, so out came the Arthur Daley pocket calculator and added together the four areas’ estimates of potential savings – savings defined in different ways, reflecting different projects and activities, across different service areas, over different time periods (Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea – 1 year; Greater Manchester, and Cheshire West & Chester – 5 years; ‘Whole Essex’ – 6 years), and with differing degrees of assuredness. Total: £810 million; round down for luck, and you have your £800 million.

Normally, you’d run a mile from something so patently tacky, but there are two big considerations here. First, the indications are that this Government is rather more committed, at least at present, to the Whole-Place Community Budget approach than its predecessors were to similar earlier initiatives – local and multi-area agreements, Total Place, etc.  In apparent confirmation of that commitment, a letter has already gone out from Local Government Minister, Brandon Lewis, asking councils to submit expressions of interest to join the new multi-agency network to share learning from the existing four Community Budget pilots.

This letter more or less coincided with an estimate from Ernst & Young that the community budget approach to pooling budgets in a local area and working across public agencies could save up to £20.6 billion over the next five years. Another magic figure perhaps, but it brings us to the second big consideration – that Whole-Place Community Budgets would seem the only game in town capable of making any significant dent in all those lost billions identified earlier.


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.