The journey to the common: what is the role of the voluntary sector?

Anna Coleman and Julia Segar

A recent publication by the New Local Government Network (NLGN) looked at how local councils are preparing for the future and suggests depressingly that “there is simply no way that local government can reach 2018 let alone 2020 while still delivering the full range and quality of services currently on offer”(p6).

Simply put, we have an ageing population, with associated increasing demand for care services and draconian cuts in council budgets. The NLGN suggest we could be facing a future of “private affluence and public squalor”. However, it is not all doom and gloom. Perhaps austerity can be a strong stimulus for innovation? How would this work I hear you ask?

They suggest a new model being discussed around the country. The idea would be to mix technology, preventative investment, integration of council services with those of the NHS and others, alongside the creation of new partnerships between local government and local populations.

The NLGN report suggests three possible ‘landscapes’ for councils of the future. Firstly, a wasteland – a world of poorly prepared councils forced to cut services dramatically. Secondly, the wild meadow – councils provide core functions and rely on spontaneous public contributions to replace dwindling services. Finally, the common – the focus moves away from the council to places where it shares responsibility jointly with communities and businesses. This latter approach is seen as optimistic and would need to build on a strong social and voluntary economy.

This idea is timely for us as about a month ago Anna chaired, and Julia attended, a briefing event in the NW of England on Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs) and how (if at all) they were engaging with local voluntary organisations and local Healthwatch. Speakers at the event came from a local Healthwatch, a local overarching voluntary organisation and someone associated with Regional Voices. Speakers described their organisations and their relationships with their HWBs. They reflected on what could be done to improve these interactions to benefit all involved. So could we tap into some of these ideas for helping to build the idea of a common?

The official vision for HWBs from the Department of Health emphasised: joint local leadership between Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and local authorities; key roles for elected councillors, clinicians, and directors of public health, adults and children’s services; the enablement of greater local democratic legitimacy of commissioning decisions, and provision for opportunities for challenge, discussion, and the involvement of local representatives. However, HWBs have no formal powers, and their ability to influence others will depend upon their success in building relationships and interacting with other organisations locally. See our previous blog (Coleman 2014) for further detail on HWBs.

On paper, then, HWBs look like ideal forums for enabling the growth of both vision and action for building local commons. Speakers at the NW event, suggested that a shift in emphasis needs to take place before such a vision can begin to be realized. They argued that a tokenistic place on a HWB is of little value either to the HWB itself or to voluntary sector organisations. The voluntary sector together with Healthwatch, can provide valuable information about needs, concerns and available assets from a range of voices within a local community, with evidence varying between robust data to insightful patient stories (National Voices 2014). In Manchester alone, there are over 3000 voluntary organisations delivering a wide range of services to diverse groups. The estimated worth of the sector in 2012 was £477 million drawing on the work of over 94,000 volunteers (Dayson et al 2013). So HWBs should consider carefully who might sit on (or with) the HWB, and at what level (Board or sub-group) to represent the views of the voluntary sector and how these individuals should be chosen.

It was suggested that HWBs are missing a trick if they don’t engage effectively with local Healthwatch (who have a seat on HWBs) and voluntary organisations (who may be invited to sit on HWBs).These organisations have valuable knowledge, local intelligence and capacity at community level. The speakers indicated that very rigid structures and ways of working do not always work and that having a seat at the table does not guarantee that organisations are heeded. In order to develop new ideas and innovative solutions for complex local health and wellbeing needs, HWBs need to devote time and attention to voluntary organisations and to Healthwatch. In the current state of austerity sharing resources, skills and information is vital and good practice both locally and nationally.

This briefing event asserted the role of the voluntary sector in improving the health and wellbeing of local populations. The contributions that they could make in helping realise the landscape of the common is also clear. Step one on this path is to see, hear and listen to these organisations on HWBs.

Now read:

Anna and Julia’s article Joining it up? Health and Wellbeing Boards in English Local Governance: Evidence from Clinical Commissioning Groups and Shadow Health and Wellbeing Boards is published in Local Government Studies.

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Anna Coleman is a Research Fellow in the HIPPO team (Health policy, politics and organisation groups), part of the Institute for Population Studies at the University of Manchester. HiPPO also constitutes, jointly with researchers from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Kent, the Department of Health Policy Research Unit in Commissioning and the Healthcare System (PRUComm). PRUComm provides evidence to the Department of Health to inform the development of policy on all aspects of health-related commissioning.

Julia Segar

Julia Segar is a qualitative researcher in the Centre for Primary Care at the University of Manchester. Her previous projects were concerned with telehealthcare and with changes in the healthcare system. Julia part of the Health, Policy, Politics and Organisation (HiPPO) research group within the Centre.

Disclaimer: The research for referenced paper is funded by the Department of Health. The views expressed are those of the researchers and not necessarily those of the Department of Health.

What does the Autumn Statement mean for local government?

Catherine Staite

This December, in contrast to the previous two years of worse than expected news, the Chancellor has revised his growth forecasts upwards and revised his debt forecasts downwards.

Figure 1 shows successive forecasts for year-on-year GDP percentage growth (at constant prices) since November 2011 It can be seen that the forecasts have been successively revised downwards by the Office for Budget Responsibility since then, as shown by arrows a, 2 and 3.  However, the latest survey of forecasts by the Treasury for this November suggests that the Chancellor will be presented in December with a higher-than-expected forecast for GDP growth – as shown by arrow 4 – for his Autumn Statement.

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Figure 1: Growth forecasts since November 2011

Up until now, local government has taken more than its fair share of the downward adjustments to spending plans. Funding for councils has fallen by an average 21% and ‘councils serving deprived areas have seen the largest reductions in funding relative to spending since 2010/11’.

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Figure 2: The variable impact of the cuts

Dealing with the problems generated by changing demographics, the economy and central government policy have increased pressure on council finances. Spending on homelessness has risen by 16% since 2011/2 and the number of looked after children increased by 10% between 2009 and 2012.  The pressure to meet rising urgent need means there is less to invest in early intervention which will save money and improve lives in the long term.

Local government has reduced its costs by cutting jobs and being more efficient.  Council’s can only cut so far before they become unable to meet their 1700 statutory duties, including protecting the most vulnerable and remain viable.

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Figure 3: Cumulative cuts for CLG and local government

Because Communities and Local Government have taken a disproportionate share of previous budget cuts, local government has also taken more than its fair share of the cuts.

The news that there will be no further cuts to local government funding in 2014/5 is to be welcomed, not least because it is a tacit acknowledgement that local authorities have risen to the challenge of becoming more efficient, in an exemplary way. Perhaps it also reflects some understanding that continued cuts would further endanger services for the most vulnerable.

Local government has wearied of the confrontational style and unrelenting unpleasantness of Eric Pickles. Perhaps, today’s news is a sign that George Osborne is interested in having a more mature and productive relationship with local government.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

A reply to Fraser Nelson: the only thing astonishing is how little power local authorities have

Catherine Staite

Fraser Nelson’s article on Birmingham City Council last Friday was a very disappointing offering from an experienced journalist and a reputable paper – more Daily Mail then Daily Telegraph. 

It was riddled with inaccuracies.

Birmingham City Council does not have ‘astonishing power’. What is astonishing is how little power local authorities have, even in big cities.  Central government has as iron grip on local government. Money – how it is raised and spent – and policy – the thinking which underpins those choices – are the two key levers of government and central government controls them both.

The average amount of local authority income derived from Council Tax is 16%.  Council Tax is a regressive tax based on 1991 property valuations and bears no relation to the real costs of providing local public services.  LAs cannot increase CT by more than 2% without a referendum, for which they must pay.

The remainder of their income is made up of rents, fees and charges (local authorities can’t make a profit) and business rates (which central government gathers and re-distributes to a national format).  The remainder comes from grants from central government. BCC’s take from Council Tax is only 7.5% because of poverty and property values, which means it is disproportionately dependent on central funding, which has been cut by 35% since 2010.

The gap between rising demand and falling resources is getting wider by the minute in Birmingham, just like it is in Chicago.  The difference is that Chicago can run a deficit of billions – and has done so for the last ten years.  BCC has to balance its books.  It is still obliged to deliver over 1700 statutory duties – from trading standards to disposal of the dead to the protection of children. Year by year it has less and less room to manouvre.

What is really astonishing is that Birmingham and other local authorities still manage to deliver very good services. A recent Ipsos Mori poll showed satisfaction remains high.  That is because authorities have protected frontline services in spite of losing 15% of their jobs since 2010.

Splitting up Birmingham City Council would make no sense at all. The comparison with Manchester is entirely spurious.  The geography and demography of the ten unitary authorities in the Greater Manchester area is very different to Birmingham but the success of that area is built on collaborative upscaling not on separatism. They have banded together to create a Combined Authority. It’s the only way to get the economies of scale and critical mass to compete, bring growth and deliver infrastructure.

The West Midlands is not made up of unitary councils – it is a mixture of unitaries and two tier areas – encompassing counties and districts.  This makes it harder for Birmingham and the wider West Midlands to emulate Greater Manchester’s collaborative progress.  In Birmingham, some services are run at a neighbourhood level, and a district structure helps support better engagement and differentiation but there is nothing to be gained by splitting the city.

Birmingham is a global city, competing with Chicago, Melbourne and Guangzhou and dividing it up would be a nonsense.  Last week senior people from Birmingham City Council were in China, drumming up business for the city.  Would Beijing be interested in talking to Kings Heath District Council? I think not.

Blaming Birmingham City Council for the architectural failings of the 1950s is like blaming David Cameron for Suez.  It’s entirely pointless. Most cities have some 1950s and 1960s monstrosities but Birmingham is being very successful in transforming the city centre. The Bull Ring works, New Street Station is being transformed and whatever Prince Charles thinks about the new library, I think it is truly amazing.  It is beautiful and original.  What is more important is that it works.  Hundreds of thousands of people have flooded through its doors and librarians have had to work hard to keep up with the huge rise in demand for books.  That is the real measure of its success.

People hark back to the happy days of Joseph Chamberlain who as Mayor in the 1870s and thereafter transformed the city and created the legacy of civic splendor, including the University of Birmingham.  The difference between then and now is that he did have ‘astonishing power’ because he had control of both the money and the policy.  In spite of the herculean efforts of Lord Heseltine, central government controls the big money for skills, growth and infrastructure.  It is to the credit of Birmingham that they have done so much with so little.

Poverty is indeed a problem in Birmingham but not one which the city council can solve. National policies drive national poverty which is then concentrated in big cities. Birmingham is super-diverse and has a high proportion of young people.  Ethnic minorities and the young have been disproportionately effected by the recession.  Central government’s cuts to benefits to vulnerable people are shunting the costs of poverty onto local government at a time when they have few resources with which to respond.

Child protection is a stark example of this phenomenon.  Most child abuse has its roots in poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and mental illness.  Local government cannot solve all those ills alone.  Every serious case review and every inquest highlights a very simple lesson.  Children can only be protected when all the key agencies work together – schools, GPs, mental health services, the police, the hospitals – as well as children’s social care.  Cuts in public sector funding have a knock on effect on child protection.  West Midlands police cannot attend all the case conferences they should.  It is in those circumstances that children fall through the net.

Somehow it is always the Council that gets the blame.  They do hold the ring in a complex network of agencies, professionals and responsibilities – but they cannot always be expected to hold the blame.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

The ‘Detroit question’ and Parish Councils

Ian Briggs

The agenda on public service integration continues apace: discrete organisations working together in partnership has been the ideal in the past, but we are now in a world where the boundaries between organisations are becoming blurred and important questions are being asked again around the overall structure of our public services.

We recently hosted an interesting roundtable for Police and Crime Commissioners here at INLOGOV where the debate somewhat expectantly turned to the potential advantages of gathering the so called ‘Blue Light’ services together. Indeed, there has been a lot of progress in this field: certain first responder paramedic services can and are delivered by fire fighters and there are other examples of this integration which make a great deal of sense. It makes sense economically and, importantly, from the public perspective it makes sense too. Little attention is paid by a citizen or service user as long as the need is met and the service adds value. So we can safely say that some useful, realistic and economically advantageous integration projects are now well underway.

However, there is one aspect of integration that is rarely discussed but appears to be gathering a bit more attention recently. It goes something like this…. “As a District Council we are a billing authority, we send out the council tax bills and residents can see proportionately where their council tax is being spent. They can see that a proportion is retained by us; they can see a fair bit goes to the county council, the Fire service and police and little bit at the end is called the precept for the Parish Council. When we look at the totality for the parish and town councils precept it adds up to a fair sum. Why is it that when we can hardly afford the electricity bill to keep the lights on in our district council, the parishes and town councils have a load of loot?”

The councillor in this conversation also goes on to say that they have invested a great deal of time and energy in reshaping services and entered into complex partnering arrangements to bring efficiency benefits for us and the county, but “we seem to have overlooked the role of parish and town councils”. Looking recently at one multi tier area in the West Midlands that is heavily and actively parished suggests that the total precept adds up to quite a few million pounds; a rough calculation also suggests that for most town and parish councils they have discretionary control over more than half of their budgets (according to CLG the total English council precept for town and parish councils is over £540m -2013/13).

Decisions on spend, often set against some reasonably realistic and thoughtful parish plans, do deliver real and appreciated benefits for local communities but those parish plans, whilst submitted for approval to the district council (the billing authority in question), are administratively accepted and gather dust just to be treated as another bit of ‘administrivia’.

Granted, some councils are working well with their parish and town councils. They go beyond mere consultation and actively engage them in priority setting and are working towards much stronger integrated working, but that is not the case in many instances. There must some mileage in extending this debate to have a near seamless integration of priorities and social outcomes that dig deep into the work that parish councils do. Why is it that when the parish council budget is set it often accounts for a myriad of small contracts that are judged upon their worthiness but are rarely bound into the higher order outcomes that higher tier councils are working towards? It is logical to think that where a parish council has responsibility for open spaces and its efficacy in the management of those places is judged upon how effectively the grass is cut that those same open spaces are a resource that can have a significant role in meeting outcomes around public health, wellbeing, youth activities and a whole host more that are sought in higher tier councils.

The problem here is twofold – firstly it is rare for local parish and town councils to be engaged with these issues and secondly it is equally rare for many higher tier councils to even try to do so. There are also the attendant issues of poor integration of expenditure and budgets.

Although I have tried to bring together neighbouring parishes to coordinate and share their basic contracts (as a kind of horizontal integration that brings an economy of scale) little has been achieved and there has been little progress in taking this debate upward too.  As we are becoming more outcomes focused it is somewhat surprising that more is not done to encourage an integrative approach to what parish councils are doing on the ground and what the higher tier councils are seeking to achieve in this respect.

There have been some recent initiatives that have sought to bring this about – Selby in North Yorkshire should be commended for their approach to grouping parish and town councils and one county in the West Midlands that we are aware of has undertaken some preliminary work to engage with parish ad town councils better. However, where there have been some attempts to bring about this vertical integration, some resistance can be found too. It centres on the lack of focus on larger more holistic outcomes to be found in some, though perhaps not all parish and town councils and the potential lack of administrative and client skills they can call upon. But there may also be a lack of will on behalf of higher tier councils to stimulate this debate – it can be a tall order to effectively engage with a varied and disparate group of organisations that quite rightly guard their independence and local connectivity and in some cases district councils can have upwards of hundreds of parishes to deal with – engaging with them can be resource intensive in the extreme.

So, as some councils are facing highly uncertain futures – there is some polemic in the media about a handful of councils pulling up the shutters soon – it might be time to open this debate up and look at where there could be useful approaches to vertical integration in local government. It might be the first step in avoiding a UK Detroit.

briggs

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Doing local politics differently: learning from an inspiring community campaign against the cuts

Catherine Durose

For the second time in as many years, the south Manchester neighbourhood of Levenshulme where I live, has faced the closure of vital public facilities. This time, the library and swimming pool have been targeted. Both these facilities are community hubs which bring people in a diverse, and in many ways disadvantaged, community together. To continue to build cohesion and understanding in our community, we need these spaces. In an economic context, where literate, educated, skilled people are the key to our future growth as a city, closing the library seems a perverse decision. In an area with some of the worst health outcomes in the city, where health services are stretched and we desperately need to encourage people to take responsibility for their own health, closing down the swimming pool seems obscene. The context of these closures is that Manchester is facing one of the toughest and most unfair financial settlements for local government which has been compounded by the loss of substantial deprivation linked funding. Many in Levenshulme feel that the proposal to close our local facilities is not only short-termist, but is self-defeating.

The anger in the community has been directed in a sustained, vibrant, thoughtful and provocative campaign to save our facilities, which has engaged hundreds of people. Yesterday, a flash mob of dancers from Levenshulme wearing masks of council leader Sir Richard Leese’s face performed a routine outside Manchester Town Hall proclaiming a ‘Lev-olution’. Last week, local people held a ‘beach party’ protest outside the pool before occupying it into the night. These actions followed months of well-attended demonstrations, occupations, vigils, petitions, fundraising events and public meetings which have attracted extensive local and national media coverage. These actions reflect the importance not only of persistence – a similarly vital community effort saved the swimming baths and sports hall in 2011 – but also of a sense of humour in mobilising people. We documented similar approaches in our recent INLOGOV pamphlet, ‘Beyond the State – Mobilising and Co-Producing with Communities’.

Today sees both – in a timetable which has generated a somewhat cynical interpretation in the community – the ending of the consultation by Manchester City Council on proposals for a new community hub in Levenshulme to open in Autumn 2014 and the debate of these proposals in full council. These proposals now have an amendment, tabled by local councillors following local pressure, to work with community groups to explore whether a viable business plan can be developed to allow our existing facilities to remain open until replacement facilities are available. Teams of local people are actively working to find a way to make this happen.

The council has been unable or unwilling – until demanded to by the community campaign – to communicate with the communities in Levenshulme and unable to – until led by the community –find a way to work in collaboration to find community-based solutions to dealing with unprecedented cuts to public services. Hopefully, the inspiring community campaign in Levenshulme adds another example of how local authorities can begin to learn to do local politics differently.

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Catherine Durose is Director of Research at INLOGOV. Catherine is interested in the restructuring of relationships between citizens, communities and the state. Catherine is currently advising the Office of Civil Society’s evaluation of the Community Organisers initiatives and leading a policy review for the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme on re-thinking local public services.

Making Ends Meet: What Aren’t We Talking About?

Catherine Staite

Last month West Somerset District Council sent up a distress flare.  They can’t make ends meet and it is only going to get worse.  At the other end of the scale, the Leader of Birmingham City Council has announced £600m of cuts and declared that the changes which are coming will be ‘the end of local government as we know it’. LB Barnet’s ‘graph of doom’ demonstrates how rising social care costs will eat up their resources until there is no capacity to do anything else but social care and emptying the dustbins.

At INLOGOV we’ve been rather optimistic about the potential for some good to come out of the financial crisis.  We’ve been talking about how we need to build capacity, change relationships and challenge expectations – something we’re calling a ‘new model’ for public services. We are working with some very innovative councils who are embedding radical new thinking in the way that they prioritise resources and commission services. I really believe that it will be possible for them not only to survive but to thrive in this difficult climate.

Others will not be so fortunate. They may ‘salami slice’ and inadvertently lose all their innovative, creative people and therefore their capacity to change.  In some cases political and managerial leadership can’t imagine a different sort of world and so can’t act quickly enough to start building better relationships with communities, managing demand and harnessing capacity to help bridge the gap between what people need and what can be provided.  This requires a new style of local government and  very different, outward facing, political skills.

We are talking about many ways of mitigating the impact of reduced resources on the most vulnerable, but the one thing we don’t seem to talking about is streamlining the machinery of local government. Local government re-organisation – that is, merging smaller councils and moving to a world where shared services are the norm – could help to make the best use of limited capacity and save significant amounts of money but it is rarely discussed.  Many districts and some unitaries have successful shared arrangements, with chief executives and senior management teams managing up to three councils, with evident success.  Why don’t we talk about taking that further? Surely it isn’t because Mr P doesn’t like the idea.  That would recommend it to many. Perhaps it seems too difficult and painful a topic to discuss.  But if we don’t, then opportunities will be lost to make the changes in a positive way and not in a crisis, when distress flares have already gone up.

In Denmark, local government has re-organised itself successfully in recent years. Councils joined together voluntarily with their neighbours until they achieved the best possible combination of size and geography to deliver economies of scale and locally accessible services.  Perhaps we should think about doing the same thing?  If local government doesn’t take the initiative and provide its own leadership on this, no-one else will.  How can we justify the inefficiencies and unnecessary overheads of two tier areas and tiny unitaries in the current financial climate – when cuts are having a real impact on the most vulnerable?

English local government is demonstrably resilient and resourceful.  Can it also be clever, brave and altruistic?

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite (Director of INLOGOV)
Catherine provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.