In Kent, public sector bodies are working together to map out their public service priorities. They are setting up Locality Boards for each district, where fund holding bodies like the councils, fire chiefs and staff from the Primary Care Trusts – and soon elected police commissioners – work out how best to spend their money properly and eradicate duplication. It sounds like a good idea. They are mostly democratically accountable – albeit not the Locality Board directly itself – and working out the priorities for the county and districts collectively may cut out a lot of crossed-wires and miscommunication. A Locality Board has three 'ambitions': to grow the economy of Kent; to reduce disadvantage; and to empower citizens.
On paper, one can see how this is a decent concept, and localist in nature. What's better than bodies working together to spend money efficiently, in the best interests of the area and saving taxpayers' money?
They don't hold any money of their own, spending within an overarching corporate plan. Money is power – just ask those who have their own care budgets and can decide who the provider is – but a Locality Board doesn't have any. The money still stays with the bodies that are sitting round the table. That could render these meetings as little more than talking shops, with attendant expense claims to boot.
Not that these bodies should have money to spend – it's not desirable to set up new RDAs at a county level. Even as they stand now, there is a concern that districts will simply turn up to meetings and ask for money regardless, and the county council may just foist any unwanted responsibilities they have downwards in return. Indeed, there is a real possibility that if districts do not get the money they seek, they'll simply pull out of the process. This gives the whole concept the whiff of pork barrel politics – against the best wishes of Kent as a whole.
District councillors face complaints from residents about the state of roads or that a streetlight is broken – but they can't do anything because such things are the responsibility of the county council. District councillors reading this will be all too familiar with that scenario. So wouldn't it be good to get together and work out what areas need more funding?
I'm not so sure. It seems that the Locality Board could just as easily be a series of expensive meetings, complete with public sector jargon laden 'ambitions'. Perhaps, though, these boards will fuel a desire for unitary authorities in Kent. If the Locality Boards prove ineffectual, district councillors may end up saying “we know what our area needs, but we can't deliver it.” A trojan horse for unitary status?
It will be interesting to see how this develops. Again, I stress that I can see the merits in theory – an unfunded meeting of interested parties is more desirable than mini RDAs – but it's full of potential pitfalls. It could be a good example of localism, but it could see the county authority centralising upwards too as it holds the majority of the money and therefore power. The next logical step seems to be a need for unitarity authorities in the area, to get the reforms districts want and their spending priorities in order. At present, I feel that Locality Boards seem to be a talking shop. And with my TPA hat on, I'd be watching out for those expense claims too.