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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