Councils fail to win freedom through local area agreements

Local area agreements (LAAs) have been promoted by the government as a way to reduce bureaucracy and give local agencies flexibility in the way they fund services. But a new report claims this has not happened.

LAAs were announced for 21 pilot areas in England in October 2004, and, after negotiation, 20 agreements were introduced in April 2005. They consist of a three-year statement setting out an area’s priorities, agreed between central government and the local strategic partnership, which includes the major public sector agencies and private and voluntary sector partners.

The priorities are grouped around four service areas: children and young people; safer and stronger communities; healthier communities and older people; and economic development and enterprise. The agreement involves the creation of outcomes, indicators and targets and the negotiation of financial freedoms and flexibilities to try to meet the priorities.

The government had planned for 40 more agreements to be created in a second round but, when 120 areas applied to take part, it increased this to 66. Despite the scheme’s original popularity, research by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies reveals many of the pilot areas have doubts. The think-tank found that many pilots felt the government had been “too prescriptive and begrudging of freedoms and flexibilities”. There was also concern that flexibilities not explicitly linked to specific targets would be rejected by the government even if there was a strong local case for them.

Cozens, AndrewAndrew Cozens, strategic adviser for children, adult and health services at the Improvement and Development Agency, says one of the problems with LAAs is that, alongside local priorities, the government also expects councils to deliver a range of national policies.

Cozens adds that this, combined with the requirements of central regulation and inspection of services, makes it difficult for regional government offices – which negotiate the agreements – to be comfortable in allowing areas to set separate priorities.

“If you are underperforming on truancy, to not have that as the top priority for a local area agreement would be problematic,” he says.

The research also found that many pilots felt the impact of the freedoms and flexibilities would be relatively minor in the short term, as those agreed “tended to tinker with the margins of service delivery” rather than do anything more radical.

A spokesperson for Brighton & Hove Council says the research findings reflect the authority’s experience of its agreement so far. She says: “The city council and other local partners to the agreement had expected that the granting of freedoms and flexibilities would support and speed up the achievement of the key outcomes being pursued under the LAA – but to date the enabling measures agreed are likely to make only marginal differences.”

However, she says the council is “realistic” about the timescale over which the full agreement was meant to come to fruition and welcomes the “general direction of travel” the agreement represents for central government and local agencies.

The pilots were given only six months to work out and negotiate the contents and priorities of their agreement. The report says many areas found this time frame difficult.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister contends that LAAs are relatively young and need the chance to develop. But, with all top-tier council areas set to have an LAA by 2007, they do not have long to prove themselves. cc

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