Government promises more freedom for top councils

Top performing local authorities are to be offered greater freedoms from Whitehall in return for pledges to improve services and deliver greater savings, the Treasury said today.

Total Place: A whole area approach to public services said that places that could show themselves to be high-performing agencies and partnerships would be invited to make an “offer” to government.

This would cover how they could deliver better outcomes and additional savings, by redesigning services around users, at the level of a neighbourhood, local area, sub-region or city-region.

In return, “freedoms would be negotiated between government and places”, which could include reductions in ring fencing, a single capital budget covering all agencies, a more area-based approach to inspection and fewer indicators to report against. They would run from 2011-14.

The report said that each offer would need to set out the scale of potential efficiency savings, the engagement of communities and the third sector in service design and delivery, evidence of willingness of partners to participate, and use of appropriate pooled or aligned budget arrangements.

The report, published a just a day after the Budget, is based on the Total Place pilots in 13 areas, under which public agencies have come together to take a “whole area” approach to funding and commissioning public services, to improve efficiency and boost outcomes. 

Together the pilots, which have involved 63 local authorities, have a population of more than 11 million people and have mapped more than £82bn of public spending, while more than 70 other areas have been engaged in similar work.

Other proposals in today’s report include plans for areas to be given greater freedoms in particular policy areas where they are high performing, which could potentially include social care.

For all areas, the Audit Commission will consult on moving from assessing individual organisations’ use of resources to doing this on an area basis, to encourage collaboration between councils, the NHS, police and other partners. And the government will also publish standardised agreements to help agencies pool budgets for individual service users, managed by budget-holding lead professionals.

In addition, the number of targets for local authorities will be cut from 188 to 170 in 2010-11, with a further “significant reduction” in 2011-12, while £1.3bn in local authority grants will no longer be ring fenced from 2011-12.

Welcoming the report, the chair of the Local Government Association’s improvement board, David Parsons, said: “Giving councils and other local service providers more freedom to get on with their jobs is the only way to improve services and save money.

“The removal of some ring fencing around how local councils can spend their money is good news for councils, as are cuts to the burden of inspection, but there is a need to go much further in slashing Whitehall red-tape.”

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