The government has done much in recent years to drive forward public service reform across areas such as education, welfare and health. Good Conservative local government is also doing its bit as regular readers of these pages will know including my own council and its Tri-borough partners where we have driven through savings, streamlined processes, joined up services and introduced early intervention schemes so that we can deliver better, more efficient and more responsive services to the people we serve.
Local government is also influencing the national reform agenda. The Budget, for instance, highlighted evidence from the Whole Place community budget pilots that will help shape some of the key principles of the spending round – smarter ways of delivering better outcomes for less, putting local knowledge at the heart of Whitehall decision making; and far more emphasis on joint working across the local public sector.
This work at the local level is also being increasingly acknowledged by those in Whitehall. Greg Clark recently wrote here how central government could learn lessons from the reforming zeal of Conservative town halls.
I couldn’t agree more and it is a record to be proud of. But ultimately it is a record on which we will all be collectively judged through the ballot box – either locally, as in London next year, or at the general election in 2015. And we can also do much more. That’s why, as we approach the Comprehensive Spending Review on 26th June now is not the time to take our foot off the gas.
Instead the government needs to use the opportunity to drive forward further reform, including making quicker progress on setting local areas free to drive value for money in public services and unleash our potential for economic growth.
In practice, there are five critical actions the government should take on 26th June:
- Cabinet Ministers should provide visible and public support to encourage local innovation, so that leaders across the public sector have the backing and confidence to take risks. In particular, Whitehall departments need to send strong and clear messages to their agencies that sharing data across the public sector should be the norm, not the exception.
- Government should announce matched or ‘top-up’ funding for Troubled Families in 2015/16 to enable this flagship programme to gain a sustainable footing locally; and consider whether more flexible criteria can be introduce so that local areas get paid by results for working with a wider cohort. It would not be overstating to say that the Troubled Families work, again written about on these pages in some detail, has the potential to deliver a step change in public services and improve people's lives whilst delivering significant savings – £2 for every £1 invested. Now is the time to back it to the hilt.
- Ministers should continue to back the Pioneer Sites to model an integrated approach to Health and Social Care, proposals for which were announced recently by the Department of Health with outline local candidates to be selected in September. We regard this as a major opportunity to progress plans which can both save money and improve outcomes – but this needs a combined central and local approach to secure the benefits shown in the community budget work to date.
- In London, following the London Finance Commission, Government should engage fully with the Mayor and London boroughs when they jointly come forward to request a discussion on London’s financial future and the potential for a London ‘deal’. Nothing should be off the table, including fundamentally reforming how we pay for our public services. An economically buoyant capital benefits the whole of the UK.
- Finally, the government needs to be radical and bold in its response to the Heseltine Review and the creation of a devolved Single Local Growth Fund, also due to be announced on 26th June, and seek to devolve as much of the identified £49 billion as possible. The days of thinking that central government departments or their agencies are best placed to deliver local public services in a one size fits all approach are over.