ODPM publishes new Local Area Agreements

    Local government minister Nick Raynsford launches LAAs which he
    claims “represents a radical new approach in the relationship
    between local and central government”. Lindsay Clark
    reports.

    Financing and managing local government never really promised to
    be a barrel of laughs, and, as if to prove a point, the Office of
    the Deputy Prime Minister this week launched a new strategy that
    seems only to muddy the waters.

    One official admitted the prospectus on the new Local Area
    Agreements (LAA) was one of the most impenetrable government
    documents he had seen. The plan is that LAA will incorporate
    central government Public Service Agreements (PSA) and local PSAs
    (LPSAs), and be able draw from existing Neighbourhood Renewal Funds
    (NRF).

    However, within this turgid soup of acronyms lies a policy shift
    that could mean those providing community support services for
    children and older people are freed from complex and repetitive
    auditing and given more time to address locally driven
    priorities.

    Introducing the new agreements, local government minister Nick
    Raynsford said: “Local Area Agreements represent a radical new
    approach in the relationship between local and central government.
    We are focusing on what is important: the outcomes in key areas.
    Central government will set strategic priorities but will leave
    authorities and their partners to decide the detailed
    implementation.”

    Although central government will still set national targets with
    public services agreements, devolved through local PSA, in LAA
    these agreements to be interpreted in a local setting and
    additional local priorities to be included.

    The Local Government Association is taking a lead on the
    introduction of LAAs and will meet local authorities interested in
    piloting the system in September. Simons Edwards, senior policy
    officer with the LGA, said the proposed agreements could
    potentially take some of the hassle out of administering local
    services. “Sometimes in local government you have to fill in
    a form to move a paper clip from one side of the office to
    another,” he said.  “We need to develop a new
    relationship with central government, built on trust, not command
    and control.”

    The large number of funding streams available to local public
    sector and voluntary services can mean that even very modest
    projects can be expensive to administer, because of a variety of
    reporting requirements. As a result, for some services
    administration costs can equal the funding gained, Edwards
    said.

    Local authorities will lead development of LAAs in discussion
    with other local strategic partners, which might include primary
    care trusts, voluntary groups, local education authorities, schools
    and the forthcoming children’s trusts.

    Although they could eventually apply to a broad range of local
    services, the LAA pilots will initially address three themes, each
    with its block of funding: children and young people; safer and
    stronger communities; and healthier communities and older
    people.

    The nine pilots due to be launched later this year will include
    a least one unitary authority, a two-tier council system, and
    authorities from areas of differing local needs. The government
    said the LAA approach could be taken further in a more
    comprehensive funding model. In one of the nine pilot areas,
    therefore, a “single pot” LAA will be developed in
    which there would be no barriers between the separate blocks of
    funding and where there would be more flexibility in spending
    funding on agreed local priorities.

    While applauding LAAs as an attempt to decentralise service
    priorities, the Local Government Information Unit, a local
    democracy think-tank, suspects the project is being hijacked by the
    big spending central government departments. It points out that the
    three funding themes reflect the government departments of health,
    education and the Home Office. Meanwhile, other vital local
    services, such as the police, are left out in the cold.

    Dennis Reed, LGIU chief executive said: “The LAA pilots
    could develop into the best idea for better public services in a
    long time and be a valuable step in overcoming the old-fashioned
    centralist mindset. Sadly, this modernising initiative has been
    somewhat mauled by the spending departments.”

    The LGA’s Edwards admits there are many questions to be
    resolved before service funding can be truly aligned.
    “Probably some way off that discussion, but many people
    thought we would not get this far. More and more people realise the
    need to change their game, not just local and central government,
    but in voluntary and community services too.”

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