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Cheshire Gives a Lead to Rural Counties Looking for a Fresh Approach

20th March 2013

ResPublica Fellow and Making It Mutual contributor, Francis Davis, writes for the Guardian

One of the ironies of the government’s radical plans for localism is that they have sought to impose a narrative which champions the nation’s major cities over and above its counties and rural areas. Local economic growth, Ministers aver, will most likely come from the complexity generated by intense city based interactions and trading.

Even Lord Heseltine’s review, which will now cause a pot of £49 billion to be allocated to Local Enterprise Partnerships more generally, is dominated by a vision of urban renaissance. Particularly in the run up to county council elections, how then to account for the potential scattered across a county such as Durham led by politicians who backed Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership? And how also to celebrate the achievements of a unitary authority such as Cheshire West and Chester whose chief executive burst into public view this week with an open advocacy of something more radical still?

Steve Robinson was speaking at Capita’s annual conference on ‘community budgets’ and reflecting on the detailed graft of unlocking huge savings from intense collaboration between local, government, police , education and others. He should know. Arriving in Chester from Stoke, Robinson introduced a form of place-based budgeting even before Labour’s invention of ‘Total Place‘ which sought to pool some Whitehall allocations locally to make scarce resources go further. Over the last year Robinson’s Cheshire West and Chester, alongside Sir Howard Bernstein‘s Manchester, has been one of the elect numbers of ‘community budgets’ pilots seeking to take this agenda to its logical extremes. The upshot is a set of plans that in Cheshire West alone will save £50 million in five years.

Robinson’s focus is unrelenting. He wants ‘people off welfare’, ‘those that don’t work, into work’, for people to be ‘healthy’; ‘to create jobs’ and ‘to build a place that is attractive to business; and is ‘safe’ to live in. With an authority area that embraces neighbourhoods among the most enduringly poor in the county, such as Ellesmere Port, and those which host major banks and great wealth, such as parts of suburban Chester, to set out such a hope is not glib. Intense inequality is a local reality and defeating it a bi-partisan passion on this patch.

Operationally, Cheshire West’s model is designed around creating a single point of entry to, and a single point of advocacy for, those families who approach public services. Co-located, jointly managed staff will have a mandate to champion their client through the system and various agencies so reducing time burdens, psychological pressure and costs for those looking for help. Collaboration in operations is being driven by shared leadership. A joint board is in place across the agencies involved and even the finance directors of each are meeting monthly to ensure a free-flow of resources beyond traditional boundaries.

A new suite of financial indicators at the top table is being matched with new recruitment criteria which emphasise the duty to collaborate at the coalface. Robinson is so hopeful that such detailed work will reap dividends that he has begun to argue for a new form of ‘payment by results’ that rewards those authorities that deliver real returns. Indeed he has recently been at the Treasury suggesting that if the police, local government, health and others can share budgets and operations to raise client satisfaction and cut costs, they should collectively benefit from the proceeds of such innovation, so enabling them to invest even more in defeating poverty and backing economic growth.

But Cheshire West and Chester’s commitment to public innovation, and both a social and an economic recovery, goes further. In the coming months two of its managers, Linda Couchman and Helen Bailey, will spin out social care and regulatory services into employee led and owned enterprises. In Bailey’s case her aspiration is to fully mutualise regulatory services and so form the world’s first ever co-operative focused on environmental health, licensing, roads, parking and related activities. The excitement among this part of Robinson’s team is palpable and is sending ripples across the authority.

Combined with striking plans in cultural services, sport, and housing ,there is something of an emergence of a ‘social silicon valley’ effect, a buzz in the air that is beginning to attract new partners and investors. No wonder in his speech this week Steve Robinson emphasised the need to ‘keep it dry’, not to talk in broad sweep about possibilities but to pay real attention to concrete and achievable outcomes which deliver.

While Cheshire West and Chester emerges as a community to watch in its own right, standing tall now alongside unitary authorities such as Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds as a source of innovation, the point here is not to hold up its energy as the only approach to change. Steve Robinson himself repeatedly wants to stress a collective need to renew. In the run up to county council elections, it is rather a question of reflecting on the fresh approaches that northern counties can bring to social and economic recovery as well. And to suggest that, while in the language of ‘re-balancing’ cities have a special contribution to make, the most energetic counties have a unique niche too.

For if Whitehall’s narrative of localism becomes one swamped by the northern urban communities they have heard of, the talent, hopes and contribution of so many people and places in between will be ignored at all our expense. And that would be more than ironic.

The Guardian Article

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