The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Community Budgets: The proven path to local empowerment

25th November 2013

Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee discusses Community Budgets

At the same time as facing increased demand for services, councils up and down the country are grappling with significant reductions to their budgets. This cannot go on indefinitely – something has to give. Unless councils can find ways to substantially reduce costs, those non-essential services that are relied upon by many – libraries, sports facilities and parks , sure-start-centres, to name a few – will come under even greater pressure. In short, they may not be able to survive.

It was against this backdrop that the Communities and Local Government Committee, which I Chair, last month published its report on Community Budgets. Announcing in 2010 its intention to pilot Community Budgets as a method of integrating local services, the Government held out high expectations that they could “improve[e] outcomes, reduc[e] duplication and waste and…sav[e] significant sums of public money”. Looking at the most recent pilots – four ‘Whole Place’ Community Budgets and ten ‘Neighbourhood’ Community Budget areas – the Committee examined whether Community Budgets were living up to these high hopes. We found that the pilot Community Budgets are indeed already demonstrating the clear potential to deliver more effective and more integrated public services. In addition, they have the potential to do so whilst simultaneously reducing costs.

Nevertheless, this significant potential will only be realised if the initiative is scaled up with national momentum. And it will only do so if central government fully commits to it. This commitment must not just consist of pleasing platitudes and an endless parade of pilots. It is of course correct for the Government to test a policy before national rollout. But, with another wave of Community Budget pilots being launched, the initiative is in danger of becoming bogged down in what is effectively piecemeal implementation. The Government needs to send a clear, unambiguous message to every local authority, whether they are part of a pilot or not, that they will be supported if they wish to introduce Community Budgets.

Central government must, however, also go further and not just promise to support local authorities, but set out in concrete terms how it will do so. This should include responding constructively to requests from local authorities for pump priming funding. It is, after all, not unreasonable to expect central government to invest upfront in the development of Community Budgets given that a significant proportion of the savings are likely to accrue nationally.

Central government must also work to embed the joint working so essential for the success of Community Budgets, including encouraging co-operation within its own departments and ensuring that responsibility for promoting and shaping the Community Budgets initiative is not restricted to a silo at the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Committee found that the secondment of Whitehall officials to pilots has proved to be an important way of bringing about the necessary cultural change in both local and central government. Whilst unrealistic to expect departments to provide high-level secondees to all community budgets areas, at the very least all areas wishing to develop Community Budgets should be matched with a named senior official within each department who would be responsible for providing support and guidance.

Support and encouragement from central government is necessary but not sufficient, however. Ultimately, Community Budgets will only succeed if local authorities and public service partners see investment in them as beneficial. Currently, because of the way services are organised in silos, there can be a reluctance to invest if the likely benefit of that investment is banked by another local service. This reluctance would be reduced if local authorities and their partners were sure that they would benefit from any investment they make in Community Budgets. For this reason we recommended that local authorities, their partners and central government develop a framework on how the benefits of investment are to be shared out.

The pilots are demonstrating the potential of Community Budgets to deliver the future of public service provision. But the challenge of introducing the initiative nationally and realising this potential should not be underestimated. The recommendations contained within our report pave a way for how this can be done. If they are not acted upon, then Community Budgets are at risk of becoming simply one more initiative tossed onto the scrap heap of shiny new ideas forgotten about and abandoned after a few pilots. This must not be allowed to happen – the stakes are simply too high. Community Budgets offer a vital lifeline to public services sinking under the dual pressures of budget reductions and increased demand. It must be grabbed with both hands.

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