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Councils could lead local restructuring of public services Matthew Warburton - 03/01/2013

restructure_400Self-financing may provide council housing with a secure basis for long-term financial planning, but the housing departments that manage it are not immune from the financial storms affecting other council services. English councils have cut £5 billion and shed 230,000 jobs since 2010.

The Autumn Statement made it clear that the pressure will not ease. Councils have been exempted in 2013 from the additional 1 per cent cut announced for government departments in the, probably vain, hope that they will freeze council tax for another year. But they will feel the full force of a 2 per cent cut in 2014.

Secretary of State Eric Pickles has been criticised for failing to acknowledge the gravity of the challenge, pursuing his crusade to restore weekly bin collections and wittering on about chief executives' pay while councils are forced to put discretionary services to the sword.

In truth there is a little more to his argument than that. In a recent interview in House Magazine, he picked out better procurement and more joint working as the two keys to improve efficiency and make the cuts while saving services; "a lot of the smaller districts are just going to have to work together", he argues, identifying payroll, benefits, housing and free school meals as particular opportunities for joint work, but going on to mention planning, and applaud the plans of Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham for a much more radical merger, bringing all three councils under a single chief executive.

Who could possibly object? "The people who tend to be against this are generally officials, because they see themselves losing jobs", said Pickles. A disgruntled official might also note that the one group whose jobs are unaffected by this process are the councillors.

He might also think that in the search for savings on the scale now required it is illogical to rule out streamlining arrangements for political governance by reducing the number of members, voluntary merger of councils or reorganisation, as recommended by Michael Heseltine. But wholesale reorganisation is ruled out, according to Pickles, because it is too disruptive.

In this interview, Pickles only mentions opportunities for councils to work jointly with other councils. But the real potential for joint working to deliver better services and greater efficiency, however, comes with joint working in a locality across the whole public sector, as DCLG's own work on Community Budgets has shown.

That is because there are not just efficiencies of scale to be realised but real opportunities to reduce overlap and duplication between the work of local government, police, the NHS and so on.

There is good evidence that, given the chance, councils could lead the local restructuring of public services - in different ways to suit different local circumstances - to improve effectiveness and squeeze out much more efficiency. The biggest obstacle here is the silo culture which infects central government departments as much as the public services they sponsor.

In his long-awaited but somewhat anodyne review of the Government's progress on decentralisation, Cities Minister Greg Clark, now Financial Secretary to the Treasury, concluded that it is generally "doing well". He gave most departments (even DWP) three stars out of a potential five, for the progress they have made on decentralising power and services.

DCLG was awarded four stars, signalling "ambitious decentralisation programme underway - further action required on some issues". But looking more carefully at the criteria used to evaluate Departmental progress, it is clear that much more emphasis is devoted to how much the centre has let go than to what benefits have been felt in localities.

Thus elected Police Commissioners, Academies and NHS reorganisation are all cited as positive evidence of decentralisation, without there being any acknowledgement or evaluation of what these very different initiatives add up to in a locality, whether they make it easier or harder to achieve coordinated local action towards shared objectives.

To the extent that Clark's report conveys any vision of the future it is of a ratatouille of public services chopped into small pieces of various sizes and shapes, left to float free in a sauce of local challenges.

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