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.
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.