Doncaster devolves but keeps its heart beating in the centre

The idea that public services should move closer to the people
is one that commands near universal agreement among

Government ministers regularly speak about user choice,
community participation and neighbourhood empowerment. And the
government’s policies on social regeneration, through the
neighbourhood renewal fund and new deal for communities, are based
on the idea that giving residents a stake in their communities will
improve services.

Later this month, deputy prime minister John Prescott is
expected to unveil a strategy to give neighbourhoods powers over
issues such as street cleaning and community safety, probably
through councils devolving powers to an even more local level.

But councils are pre-empting ministers. Local Government
Association research last year showed that three-quarters of
councils had set up area committees and one-third of these had
executive powers.

Last year, Birmingham Council devolved power over services,
including leisure, libraries, street cleaning, waste collection and
parks – along with £125m – to 11 mini-councils.

But now, Doncaster Council’s managing director Susan Law is
proposing to go one step further and devolve the delivery of all
its services to neighbourhood level, scrapping all service
departments on the way (news, page 7, 13 January). Significantly,
this includes social care, which other local authorities have been
reluctant to devolve to sub-council level.

This attitude may have something to do with the history of
neighbourhood governance.

Professor Chris Skelcher, head of research at Birmingham
University’s institute of local government studies, says enthusiasm
for neighbourhoods among councils has come in waves.

He says: “This is the third or fourth round of this. There was a
cluster of councils that did this in the 1980s, and others that did
this in the 1970s. Tower Hamlets probably went furthest.”

In 1986, the incoming Liberal Democrat administration at Tower
Hamlets Council in east London controversially devolved political
and managerial power over all services, including social care, to
seven neighbourhood committees.

But having Liberal Democrat-run committees in some
neighbourhoods and Labour-run bodies in others was a recipe for
conflict. The policy has even been blamed for the British National
Party winning a seat on the council in 1993.

There were particular problems for social services. An
investigation by Department of Health adviser Adrianne Jones in
1993 found that the seven neighbourhoods needed to work closer
together on social care, with budgets seriously overspent in some

A year later, the incoming Labour administration ended the
experiment, while Liberal Democrats at Kingston upon Thames Council
introduced a neighbourhood scheme that excluded social

A key worry, particularly for providers, is the impact
neighbourhood administration will have on commissioning.

Age Concern fears it could result in more short-term planning
and less strategic thinking. “Small services can also lose out,”
the charity warns. “Age Concern’s toe-nail cutting or bathing
services, for example, may support relatively small numbers of
older people in one area but cross neighbourhoods. If forced to
seek funding for each of these, the services could prove difficult
to sustain.”

Indeed, another school of thought – set in train by the Gershon
review on public sector efficiency – suggests commissioning social
care on a larger, possibly regional, scale to achieve better

While the argument for regional procurement has been challenged
on efficiency grounds by the Association of Directors of Social
Services among others, it has not been accompanied by calls for
neighbourhood commissioning.

But Nigel Druce, strategic adviser for social services at the
Improvement and Development Agency, says there are definite
advantages to basing commissioning at a local level.

“I have a real problem with commissioning anything other than at
a local level,” Druce says. “I’m a big believer in spot purchasing
so that you can meet individual needs.”

Remembering the Tower Hamlets experiment positively, he said it
had “had a resonance with people who had been disengaged from

Meeting the needs of individuals and communities is the key
justification, both in central and local government, for devolving
services to neighbourhood level.

According to Skelcher, many councils have such diverse
populations that only a neighbourhoods-based approach can meet

He suggests that services can be managed by neighbourhoods, and
even councils, coming together to buy services and secure economies
of scale. He says: “You can have [neighbourhood] delivery of a
service but you can still be part of a purchasing consortium at a
higher level.”

Doncaster is basing its proposals for neighbourhood management
on the need for joined-up services, following the now orthodox view
that clients’ needs rarely coincide with professional
Druce says: “At a higher level, you have issues about the fiefdoms
that manage, say, social workers or nurses. If you go down to a
local level, you see social workers working happily with

But despite his support for localism, he is clear that key
functions should be retained at the centre. “You can have a very
devolved system where you still have quality control [at the
centre],” he says.

This is the route that Doncaster appears to be taking, with Law
proposing to retain performance and financial management, strategy
and policy development at the centre.

Whatever the pros and cons of councils devolving the management
of social services, Druce insists Doncaster is not alone in moving
in this direction, though others may be doing it more

He says: “There’s a lot of community action going on. It’s often
covered up by the structures of the social services department or
the education department. The only thing that’s radical [about
Doncaster] is that it’s explicit.” 


Doncaster Council managing director Susan Law sees her plans to
scrap the traditional departmental structure as being about
improving customer service.

Though emphasising that the proposals are still at the
consultation stage, she is clear on the principles that should
dictate reform: joining-up policy development and service delivery,
breaking down professional boundaries and being more responsive to

Her plans involve scrapping departments, notably social services
and education, and replacing them with a neighbourhood and
community services function.

All services would be run through six neighbourhood bodies
while, at the centre, community directors would be responsible for
setting council strategies across a range of themes that cross
traditional service boundaries.

She says: “I’m keen for policy and strategy to be joined up. One
of the difficulties we have with education directorates and social
services directorates is that you have policy in relation to
education and policy in relation to social services.”

Doncaster is one of the 21 authorities piloting the government’s
local area agreements scheme, in which the multitude of Whitehall
funding streams are streamlined into three blocks: children and
young people, safer and stronger communities, and health and older

Community directors’ responsibilities are likely to match these
themes, fulfilling the Children Act 2004 requirement for councils
to have a children’s services director.

Doncaster is a high performing authority, having gone from fair
to good in the comprehensive performance assessment. But some
people, including Unison branch secretary Ron Dawson, believe the
council should be consolidating its gains rather than initiating
radical structural reform.

He says: “We needed a period of stability. We’ve got major
concerns about it.” He says the union will fight any compulsory
redundancies arising from the scheme.

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