Local government is faced with reshaping services in an uncertain world – and with government's plan for reform looking fragmented, select committee chairman Clive Betts tells Public Service Events' Redesigning Local Services conference. There are solutions, reports David Allaby
Clive Betts, the Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee chairman, could muster only a hesitant prognosis for local government as he opened his address to local government officers at Westminster Central Hall: "The reality is we have enormous uncertainty and I don't think anyone in the room could say with certainty where we will be in 10 years time."
The former leader of Sheffield City Council, a keynote speaker at Public Service Events' Redesigning Local Services conference, feels that reform of local services is fragmented and some government departments show little interest in or have any plan for localism and devolved powers.
"If I say what have free schools, police commissioners and GP commissioning got in common, it is that they have been thought up by different government departments in different ways without any thought to how they relate to the whole and how strategic accountability at local level can take place," he told the conference.
Betts believed the troubled families' initiative was full of possibilities. "But are we really going to get the Home Office, the police, Department for Education, councils and DCLG all signed to troubled families budgets, and how on earth do payment by results fit?" he asked.
"How do you deal with academies, free schools or police commissioners who decide they don't want to take part in a troubled families budget because they all have their independence. All these have been set up without any thought to the wider strategic whole."
Local government had to drive a new systemic approach to service redesign, said Essex County Council deputy leader David Finch. Redesign and efficiencies would deliver savings of £330m at the authority by next year. It was not just about keen procurement or negotiation with suppliers, more about how well local government could intervene in and shape the market. Local government was part of a change agenda that needed more responsive suppliers in a systemic approach.
"We want to make sure that collaboration in the market will help to move those markets where we want them to move," Finch said, and that was not always achieved through having one or two businesses in a dominant position.
Localism as a concept was well supported, said Betts. "I am not saying we have got to the Promised Land yet in terms of delivering on localism, but general support for the concept is very strong across all political parties," he told the CMC Partnership-sponsored event.
And government wanted to engage with councils. He challenged local authorities to force Whitehall to accelerate devolution. "There is some truth in the fact that when you say to minister Greg Clark why aren't you giving more powers to councils, he says they don't ask for them – no one comes and knocks on our door and if they do we will take it seriously. The challenge is there to go and knock on government's door and make an awful fuss if you don't get a positive response," said Betts.
Councils needed time and management expertise, political will and sometimes upfront funding to reconfigure and meet the challenge, but he warned: "Many of them haven't got time because the savings have to be made in the first two years of a four-year period, management is preoccupied with cuts, and management itself is being cut, upfront funding is not available, and political will is sapped when councils have to take the hits from the public on service reductions."
Turning Point chief executive Lord Victor Adebowale admitted he was worried by the transition gap as cuts hit services before they could be redesigned. Government may have missed the opportunity to redefine commissioning, he said.
Conference chairman Ian Briggs of Birmingham University's Inlogov said too much time was still taken up "doing process maintenance on existing systems".
Betts saw community budgets as "a challenge to the silos of Whitehall. Sir Humphrey doesn't like community budgets, and there is a lot of resistance in Whitehall to them because it means a central government department doesn't necessarily control the money in their budget and decide the priorities for it in every area".
For all that the Localism Act was a step forward, he said, there were still too many restrictions on local government "which a real localism agenda ought to be challenging and getting rid of".
'They don't know what they don't know'
• A former Downing Street insider, Campbell McDonald, of the Baxi Partnership, gave delegates an insight into some of the benefits and pitfalls of setting up cooperatives and mutuals from the public sector. He said that getting up in the morning was a far better experience when you had a stake and a say in how a business was run. It was a powerful experience. However, there was always much to learn, and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles had a habit of saying "Here's a good idea, go away and do it". But McDonald cautioned that there was a "Rumsfeld gap" of knowledge and experience for those spinning out businesses from the public sector: "They don't know what they don't know."
• The managing partner of an early Whitehall spin-out, John Craig of the Innovation Unit, said: "Unless you are engaging leaders and pushing them to a commitment to one another to do better, innovation will crash on the rocks of vested interest."