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Problem households - councils can lead action to save billions Matthew Warburton - 24/01/2013

Sisyphus_300As provocative, misleading and ill-informed headlines go, on a scale of one to ten, Inside Housing's offer this week, "Councils waste billions fighting troubled families" scores a strong nine-and-a-half.

The story beneath concerns the latest report from CLG's Troubled Families Programme headed by Louise Casey, "The Cost of Troubled Families", which has been posted on the CLG website under the headline: "Report shows councils can save billions of pounds by intervening more effectively in problem households".

By turning this around to accentuate the negative, Inside Housing's journalist has discarded the report's real and important messages to indulge in some cheap council-bashing. The billions that could be saved are not just, nor even mostly, council spending - they include spending by police, the courts and prison service, health, schools and central government.

It was councils that first pointed to the opportunities for savings from better coordination of local interventions with troubled families, in the context of the old Local Area Agreements, and it is councils which have taken the lead in developing, co-ordinating and trialling new approaches and quantifying the benefits. Any attempt to castigate councils for not spotting and seizing these opportunities sooner is simply perverse.

England has a distinctive patchwork of locally provided public services. Some are run by councils - or divided between county and district councils in two-tier areas.

The police service used to be organised by county but in most areas is no longer. There is a national health service, a national system of courts and prisons, and a largely - soon to be almost entirely - national system of welfare benefits.

Any illusion that there is a logic to these arrangements that flows from the characteristics of the services involved can be instantly dissolved by looking at other nations. For virtually every service administered locally in England an example can be found abroad where the same service is run nationally, and vice versa.

The way public services are organised is a legacy of history, and of a focus on the organisation of provision, not the needs of the service users. So services are organised in a set of silos, each dominated by a different profession with a distinctive culture, professional journal and networks.

Some are run by councils, others are not. And each has a different sponsoring department and Minister, who rarely demonstrate much interest in working together. Despite its name, CLG is responsible for a minority of the services provided by councils.

For more than a decade, it has been a key theme of public service reform that services should be reconfigured around the needs of citizens and service users. The Troubled Families Programme shows clearly that these families' needs are not being met by services that are primarily configured to respond in an uncoordinated way to problems as and when they arise - when crimes are committed, or children behave badly in school or on the local estate, where individuals are injured or need help with drug-related problems, or households get into debt or rent arrears.

This latest report provides new evidence of the costs involved, not just to councils but right across the public sector. In Barnet, for example, the total cost of providing services to 18 troubled families was identified as £1.7 million, of which only £800,000 was council spending; DWP and the police and prison services together spent another £800, 000, and the NHS a further £75,000.

The report also shows how much can be saved by replacing unco-ordinated and ineffective action with interventions that are targeted on a family's actual needs, preventative rather than reactive and better co-ordinated. In Barnet's case, the cost of effective intervention could be as little as £10,000 per family, a saving of nearly 90 per cent.

The compelling case for service reform revealed by these figures amply repays the effort that has gone into putting them together. Because of the silo organisation of services it is no easy matter to line up comparable cost information across the full range of services, disaggregated to individual households.

Councils should be congratulated for the ground-breaking work that has gone into this, often pushing uphill against the thrust of other government initiatives, not criticised for not having done it sooner.

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