Whitehall-watchers will turn a jaundiced eye on the conclusions of the Whole Place Community Budget (WPCB) initiative (see our feature). For years, people have called for better local coordination of services, and highlighted the vast potential benefits in terms of improving outcomes and saving cash. The results to date have been piffling.
Tony Blair set up ‘local strategic partnerships’ to foster inter-service collaboration at the frontline – but they fell foul of his top-down targets culture, which focused people on their own narrow goals. His solution, ‘shared public service agreements’ that bound departments together to pursue common targets, couldn’t overcome the fundamental implausibility of an approach that tried to mandate local collaboration by central edict.
Gordon Brown understood that local collaboration requires local power, and launched the Total Place initiative – creating a legacy so in-keeping with the coalition’s localist rhetoric that it survived the transition pretty much unscathed. Then David Cameron asked Lord Heseltine to map out a growth strategy; the PM knew, of course, that the ardent localist would champion a revival of town halls. With the Treasury making optimistic noises about local powers ahead of June’s comprehensive spending review (CSR), localism looks set to receive a substantial boost this summer.
Jaundiced eyes are unlikely to sparkle with childlike excitement at the CSR, however. Moves to take spending powers from central departments will encounter the tough Whitehall resistance that has hobbled initiatives thus far. Heseltine’s report, whilst powerfully localist, is cool on WPCB; his emphasis is on local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). And a wholesale roll-out of a WPCB-type approach would mean creating a whole new set of partnerships, sitting awkwardly alongside the government’s existing localist bodies. Police and crime commissioners, local authority health and wellbeing boards, and GP commissioning groups might have the spending power and autonomy to turbocharge a WPCB succession plan, but they also have wildly divergent boundaries and a newfound legitimacy which – paradoxically – will make it more difficult for government to lever them into greater collaboration. They will have to be tempted into new partnerships, not pushed together.
In this context, it will be surprising if the government decides to move equally fast on two localist fronts. With Heseltine’s backing, the LEPs are likely to do well in the CSR – perhaps offered a chance to bid for economic development cash from a successor to the Regional Development Fund. Meanwhile, support for greater local collaboration on service delivery – on past form, at least – may be confined to warm words, development cash, some loosening of central spending controls, and perhaps the appointment of champions in Whitehall departments.
If that’s the outcome, it will represent a missed opportunity to give genuine localism a shot in the arm; and even at the LEP level, only the most coherent, professional and advanced groups will benefit. It’s no surprise that Greater Manchester is the only unit common to both the WPCB and LEP initiatives: the most developed city-region outside London leads a very mixed-ability field in the race for sub-regional government. If less unified groups wish to capitalise on the coalition’s slow-maturing romance with localism, they must end their eternal wrangling and develop a common vision. For departments will find it difficult enough to hand cash and powers to the most united and professional of local partnerships; nobody in Whitehall will be arguing for substantial devolution to the less coherent ones. And under this scenario, despite all the rhetoric about local decision-making, the most crucial call of all – which partnerships get the cash – is likely to remain firmly in the hands of central government.