This week various pronouncements by the Communities Secretary, Mr Pickles, and by the Chancellor, Mr Osborne, could easily lead you to the belief that the Government has become converts to the concept of place based budgeting. This is a system whereby all of the tax pounds spent in a local area, be it by Councils, the NHS, central government departments or quangoes, are pooled to focus on the real local needs of citizens. The advocates of this system argue that it avoids duplication and drives out huge amounts of cost.
The problem is that Messrs Osborne and Pickles do not appear to have told their friends. The Departments of Education and Health seem to be travelling in the opposite direction. “Free” Schools and GP commissioners, are to be incentivised to treat the tax pound they receive as their own money, not to be pooled or shared with anyone else. This week’s consultation document on policing is also completely against the grain of sharing of budgets.
Irrespective of any views as to the merits of directly elected police commissioners the document makes it clear that all responsibility lies with this one individual, who may listen to others but has no duty to co-operate. Indeed the document goes out of its way to set up a new and separate bureaucracy and governance model. The document says that the Police Commissioner will “need to appoint and lead a team to support them in their important responsibilities.” And, “the Government will, for example, require the appointment of an individual with appropriate financial skills, and establish process safeguards to ensure that appointments are made with propriety”.
It goes on to say, “We will create Police and Crime Panels in each force area drawn from locally elected councillors from constituent wards and independent and lay members who will bring additional skills, experience and diversity to the discussions.” And, “they will be responsible for requiring that their forces’ neighbourhood policing teams are having regular beat meetings at times and in places that are widely advertised”. The document goes on to detail a bureaucratic infrastructure to ensure transparency (or the government’s version of this concept) and Freedom of Information compliance.
In local government speak what is being suggested is that the Commissioner hires a Finance Officer and appoints a Monitoring Officer, and establishes a devolved committee system. Why?
If the Government is serious about sharing services and place based budgets this looks very odd. Could the commissioner be obliged to contract with a local authority to provide all of these functions, since it already has exactly the same duties and has staff to deliver them? This would cut costs at a stroke and more likely lead to greater cooperation, budgetary and otherwise. As to committee structures, my local authority has been holding ward events, with the local police constable there as well as others, for nearly two decades, and they are far from unique. It is as though the Home office has no idea as to what is already there on the ground, and is recklessly re-inventing a system that merely duplicates an existing one.
If the Chancellor wants all of the savings that place based budgets can deliver, he needs to nip round to some of his Cabinet colleagues and explain it to them, before they set off in totally the opposite direction.