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
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
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
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.