“If you wait around long enough, the old ideas come around again presented as new ones, largely because the current civil servants weren’t around when this was tried last time”, I remember my former Director of Public Health lamenting, “after a while you realise that everything goes in cycles”. I used to look at him and his colleagues, working for what were then Primary Care Trusts, and feel relatively lucky that, by contrast with the health sector, Local Government was only sporadically restructured (little did I know that before long I would spend the best part of three years working on the shape of new local government structures for Norfolk).
Years later and I realise that what I thought at the time was the inevitable cynicism of a late-career GP and public servant was in all probability a simple sign of frustration. The constant tinkering with structures and funding always distracts more than it improves, not simply for the primary reason that it shifts the focus of everyone in the affected structures from the public and patients to small-p politics and a personal jostling for position.
It also offers the illusion of control and change; a practical set of steps that can be taken but which, let’s be honest, rarely serve to improve anything except the career prospects of those who happen to be in the right place at the right time. Not only that, but in implementing a restructure a politician or organisational leader gets a get out of jail card for free, one to save up and use judiciously when the hoped-for and anticipated service improvements, budget savings and efficiency gains fail to materialise: “clearly, the fault is not in the idea nor the design, but in the implementation. Staff will need to learn how to better cope with change.”
There is one other, equally paternalistic approach to change beloved by politicians and Whitehall civil servants: the area-based initiative. This in many ways feels anachronistic, given how much area-based funding has been a casualty of the ongoing-austerity regime. It’s re-emergence on the back of the notion of ‘levelling up’ reflects its primary role less to improve local quality of life and more as an attempt to gain kudos for ‘making things happen’ across the UK. As though scattering a few millions here and there to our chronically cash-starved towns and places is really going to make a difference, given the strings attached and the cost of applying in the first place. In this respect, the infantilisation of local government, forced to play these games, reminds me of Oliver, left with little choice but to ask for more…
The levelling up rhetoric and practice of recent times has reintroduced a slew of such initiatives, most notably the £3.6bn Towns fund which, NAO1 and other2 analysis shows3, has targeted marginal Conservative seats over those with higher levels of deprivation, prioritising Richmond over Barnsley and Hackney. The UK Community Renewal fund4 had no London Borough’s in the top 100 priority areas. The latest Government contest for cash is the £5m partnerships for people and place project, this time with the ambition of taking “a place-based approach to improving poor social and economic outcomes by empowering areas to develop locally-led solutions”. It intends, of course, to “explore how central and local government can collaborate in “more joined-up” ways, with the aim of influencing future policy”.
My heart sinks. Total Place was the 20105 attempt to do the same as the People and Place project, building as it did on the 2006 Local Area Agreements which sought to offer a contract of sorts between central and local government to address the issues local people prioritised. This was in turn a development from pilots looking at total public sector place-based spend. And so I am reminded of the words of my former colleague; just as I worked on joining up the local – national funding and policy relationships in the 2000s, so now local government officers are being asked to pitch for a miniscule £150k of funding to do the same again. A recent editorial6 in Local Government Chronicle laments “the waste of time and resources such contests and small funding pots leads to”. The wheel keeps turning.
Of three things I can be sure. The cost of applying for, potentially winning and then accounting for such resources from Government will almost always outweigh the actual funding secured, even before opportunity cost is accounted for. That is before the realisation that the cards are stacked in favour of some places over others in what is “widely regarded as a centrally driven beauty contest”7. The false competition this stimulates pits places against each other – hardly the stuff of cohesion and effective governance. Finally, as my former DPH told me years ago, this idea of understanding the total resources in a place will, once this latest initiative is firmly in the rear-view mirror and those involved in its conception have moved on, come around once more.
Assuming, that is, central Government doesn’t end up emasculating local government to the point of its collapse, or that Local Government itself might escape the paternalism of Central Government and flourish in a post-Covid world. Explore my thoughts on what those possible futures might look like here.