Councils hopeful Hanham can accelerate progress

Author: James Illman (Local Government Chronicle)   |  

Council chiefs are pinning their hopes on Baroness Hanham’s ministerial group to revive the community budgets programme, after its slow progress sparked strong criticism from a senior council figure last week.

Local Government Association Liberal Democrat leader Richard Kemp said the programme was a “disappointment”, lacking political and managerial leadership.

Writing on his blog, Cllr Kemp said: “What I find really sad is that the [community budgets] work announced in the comprehensive spending review about ‘Families with Complex Needs’ is going very slowly indeed.”

He added: “We need very strong – even hyper-strong – political and managerial leadership. There does not seem to be much of it about. Heads need cracking. Structures need breaking down.”

But senior LGA figures were optimistic junior local government minister Baroness Hanham’s (Con) group would help the programme get “air time” in the much-anticipated public service reform white paper, expected this summer, and the second phase of Graham Allen’s (Lab) review on early intervention.

“It is about decentralising and driving more innovative ways of commissioning so we would hope it will get air time in both,” said one local government figure close to the programme.

The source added that the group, which first met in March, had put the programme back on the radar of influential cabinet ministers, such as Conservative policy chief Oliver Letwin and chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.

LGC understands the group will tackle funding barriers, data-sharing issues and pooling arrangements before looking at how best to widen the programme beyond families with complex needs.

Baroness Hanham has impressed following her work on the Total Assets programme and there remains optimism her group will be able to sell community budgets to cabinet ministers.

Local Leadership director of politics and partnerships Joe Simpson, who has been working closely with the programme, admitted progress had been “frustrating” but said it was important the sector “kept the faith”.

“I would like things to be going faster,” he said. “But there are no easy solutions.”

Mr Simpson said a second phase could feature work on older people and issues being looked at within the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ Total Environment programme.

“Issues such as care for older people and flood defences require a joint approach by agencies and do not fall under the purview of one department,” he said.

Others echoed Cllr Kemp’s concern about the programme’s progress.

Alex Thomson, chief executive of the thinktank Localis, which took a key role in shaping the Conservatives’ decentralisation agenda in opposition, said it was “not terribly clear” what was happening.

Pilots are grappling with practical issues of pooling budgets and getting buy-in from Whitehall, while some areas also hope to align the programme with developing payment-by-results models.

LGC revealed before Easter that only a small proportion of families with multiple problems in pilot areas would be assisted by the scheme.

A briefing paper prepared last month for the Whitehall community budgets group, obtained by a Freedom of Information request, showed that across 12 of the 16 community budget pilots, only 1,520 of the 22,990 families with multiple problems – around 6.6% – would be helped through the initiative this year.

The papers also set out difficulties with pooling arrangements and accessing funding pools, such as the European Social Fund (see below).

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