DCLG : ‘greater localism’ needed on community budget pilots

Author: Allister Hayman, James Illman (LGC)   |  

Ministers are set to announce a new push on community budgets amid fears that sluggish progress and lack of Whitehall buy-in could stymie early ambitions.

LGC understands ministers are preparing to announce a further roll-out of the community budgets (CBs) programme next week, which will include more areas, in addition to the 16 pilots already launched, and could also involve other themes, such as older people’s services and environmental projects.

The move comes as Whitehall papers, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, reveal concerns about the progress of the pilots, which aim to pool budgets and align services to better support families with multiple problems.

A Department for Communities & Local Government ‘stocktake’ of the first phase of the programme, prepared for a May meeting of Lord Bichard’s Whitehall community budgets group, revealed serious concerns about progress (see box below).

As LGC revealed in March, the pilots went live without a single Whitehall department having agreed to devolve any cash, despite months of negotiations between local government and ministers.

The DCLG stocktake said the lack of central pooling meant it was difficult for the pilots to “coordinate and deliver services more effectively; encourage genuine local pooling of budgets; and develop invest-to-save and payment-by-results work at local level”.

This was despite DCLG insisting, when the programme was launched last year, that the pilots would be able to “pool various strands of Whitehall funding into a single ‘local bank account’ … so communities can develop local solutions”.

A further Bichard Group paper from May said if the programme was to reach a “tipping point”, with half of all upper-tier authorities developing CBs by April 2012, then there would need to be a “compelling offer” that would have to include “local or national pooling and other routes to releasing local funding”.

It said that otherwise the ‘offer’ may not be “sufficiently attractive” to build a “significant coalition of the willing”.

But in a further blow, LGC understands that the pilots’ attempts to secure some of the Department for Work & Pensions’ £200m of European Social Fund (ESF) grant, through so-called “virtual pooling” arrangements, has stalled, with sources noting no progress in recent weeks.

The blow over ESF funding is indicative of the fractious relationships between local government and the DWP. This month a communities and local government select committee report said the CBs, which “ought to be revolutionary”, risked becoming a “damp squib” due to a lack of Whitehall buy-in, particularly from the DWP.

The pilots hope that a new ministerial group, set up in March and chaired by junior local government minister Baroness Hanham (Con), will give the programme greater drive within Whitehall ahead of the government’s much-awaited public services white paper. “The Hanham group should look at why DWP is not engaging, it’s the single biggest frustration,” a senior source in one pilot area said.

A DCLG spokesman said: “We’re looking at what central funding will be available for pooling and aligning and we’re encouraging areas to make suggestions.”

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