Brave Boards

Blog post by Phil Swan, Programme Director, Shared Intelligence

Lord Crisp’s call for more hospitals to close is a useful and important contribution to the debate. As the former NHS Chief Executive he knows only too well that there is overcapacity in the hospital sector and that closing some would free up funds for community services.

The Bournemouth,Dorsetand Poole Total Place Pilot (which looked at services for older people and for which I was project director) proved this beyond doubt. The data we collected showed that about a third of older people in hospital need not be there and that their needs could be met far more cheaply at or near their homes. The challenge was a leadership one – to make the positive case for closing hospitals.

An important question for local councils and their partners is whether Health and Wellbeing Boards will have the leadership capacity and bravery to make this case.

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Posted in Proposition 2: Local government is a public health org | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Community Ownership: A risk worth taking

Blog post by Graeme McDonald, Director of Policy and Communications, SOLACE

Community ownership is heralded as one of the big ideas for the future. Public services owned and delivered by the community can be more responsive, provide greater choice and offer more responsibility to local people.

‘Giving people a stake in society’ has been a common response to the recent disturbances on England’s streets. Community delivered services could play a small but significant part, but how can local authorities help make this happen?

The Government has just announced its £30 million Transforming Local Infrastructure Programme to help frontline civil society organisations to grasp new opportunities to run public services. This dovetails with the Open Public Service White Paper that proposes to transfer services directly to communities and give neighbourhood groups democratic control.

While we should recognise this isn’t a brand new solution, it is one being taken forward with renewed zeal and purpose.

In the same month that the White Paper and the programme were announced, evaluation reports were published by the MLA and the Asset Transfer Unit that point to some inspiring examples of how organisations have made a real success of community ownership.

However, the reports also demonstrate the importance of investment when starting down the road of community ownership, and that there is no guarantee of success. While such a programme can test an authority’s community engagement skills, it is the on-going support and training in areas such as finance and legal, which help ensure the approach is sustainable. Communities are not able, and nor should we expect them, to simply pick up where local government left off.

So the big questions facing each community group is do we have the capacity to take this on? Or conversely, can we afford not too?

In Ealing I worked with just the sort of local charity you would expect to be chomping at the bit to maximise this opportunity. They provide modern office accommodation to a wide range of voluntary and community organisations across West London.  But they offer much more than a few desks, a meeting room and access to a colour printer. The centre brings a wide range of organisations together that would otherwise be hidden away in a passionate volunteer’s front room. The centre enables them to support each other, share knowledge and hold a stake in their local community.

As with much of the third sector, finances are tight. Income is down and grant funding opportunities are more restricted. One way to ensure its future is to grow. By expanding and running other community assets, be that more office accommodation, community centres or even libraries, their own fixed costs can be spread more widely. But what about their own capacity to expand? Is growth really sustainable, and would it negatively impact their existing successes?

In the past, local authorities have done much to support local community and voluntary groups to build the capacity and skills they require to take on the activities a council may have otherwise delivered. They have invested in potential and often reaped the rewards in the passion, agility and responsiveness the third sector can bring. We all have an opportunity to learn from past successes.

The question for local authorities is what help can we now afford to give? Can we afford to invest in capacity when we know not all will succeed or where success is intangible? Unfortunately some may not prove to have the long-term capacity to succeed, and if one of our stated outcomes is to give the public choice, inevitably not every one will be chosen.

The mainstreaming of this approach will need investment, and as the stock market shows us, every investment comes with a risk. Not every community organisation will want to take on this challenge and some will find that despite their best efforts they are just not able.

Local government might invest in some failures before they find the gems. But in the current environment, can we afford not to take the risk?

Posted in Proposition 1: Times are changing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Education and an economic vision for 4 year olds

Blog post by Catherine Howe, Chief Executive, Public-i

As I have been reading around the issue of economic renewal I keep coming back to something I read on the (excellent) Greater Cambridgeshire Greater Peterborough Enterprise Partnership website.  Their ambition is to have 160,000 new jobs by 2025 – not surprising given the scale of their ambition for the whole area.

That means that the 18 year olds who will take some of those jobs are 4 years old right now and I keep wondering what work is being done within the education system in order to ensure that those 4 year olds are going to have the skills they will need to apply for and get those jobs?  Does the LEP know what skills they will need?

To some extent yes they do.  The LEP has stated that their vision is for a low carbon knowledge-based economy and these sectors need a high level of educational attainment and a lot more focus on the sciences than we might get usually.  Given that green tech is a relatively new industry, and that the knowledge economy tends to be built of lots of smaller businesses, it’s also reasonable to say that the area needs to be growing its own entrepreneurs as well as attracting them from elsewhere.

I don’t know what levers the LEP has with respect to shaping the local educational experience towards local economic need – and I think there are some longer term questions that would have to be asked if the educational experiences of 4 year olds are being guided by these kinds of long term goals. On one hand, if we don’t intervene in early year’s education then we also know there is a considerably reduced chance that we will produce the kinds of highly skilled workers that this economic vision will need in the future.  On the other hand, those 4 year olds will have ridden out 3 General Elections and the subsequent policy changes by the time they get into the workforce and we need to educate them to be ready for all that will ensue.

So I think I want to ask two questions:

  1. Are we sure that politically led organisations can produce the stability of vision that is needed to take today’s 4 years olds into the workplace in 2025?
  2. Do we have the right tools at hand to be able to help educate those 4 year olds to be able to fully participate in the economic vision that is being created for their future?

It’s the small things….

The question of education is huge – which is really why I have focused on one small group.  In contrast I just wanted to make one other, completely unrelated, observation.  My local council has given permission for the gas company to do some works which are basically backing up the traffic for miles around (it’s a small village – this is big news).  Can’t be avoided.  However, all the traders that I have chatted to on the High Street have noticed a drop off in trade and they are worried about it. These are small businesses – some of them would have closed for a week over the summer anyway – and though they know the work needs to be done some kind of warning that it was happening would have helped them plan for and deal with the slowdown far more easily and with less loss of trade.  They could have warned customers, planned their summer breaks and generally made the best of it.

It’s this kind of detailed thinking that is needed to help businesses in your area – not just the big stuff.

Posted in Proposition 5: Local government can drive economic growth | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The public health transition: a big bang or damp squib?

Blog Post by Phil Swann, Programme Director, Shared Intelligence and Proposition Facilitator

The public health challenges facing the country were cogently set out in the Marmot Review. Locally some communities face particularly pressing problems and many local authority areas encompass stark health inequalities.

In many respects the council wheel has turned full circle. Local government’s roots lie in responding to the public health challenges of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today’s equivalents – ranging from childhood obesity to sexually transmitted diseases – increasingly dominating local priorities.

One strand of the coalition government’s health reforms reinforces the role of councils as public health organisations. In short, responsibility for public health is transferring to local government – together with ring-fenced funding – and new health and wellbeing boards are being established to secure an integrated and collaborative approach at a local level.

The jury is out on just how significant these changes are. Some people see the public health transition and the new boards as a significant opportunity to restore local government’s role at the heart of the public health role with potentially significant gains for local communities. Others question the extent to which these arrangements will have real traction in relation to the old NHS beasts in the form of the acute sector and the new beasts in GP commissioners and detect powerful centralising tendencies in, for example, Public Health England.

The health strand at the SOLACE summit will unashamedly aim to influence the jury. It will test the proposition that the public health transition represents a significant opportunity for local government to do more to improve the health and wellbeing of local communities. It will also explore what needs to be done in order to ensure that this aspect of the government’s proposals is indeed an opportunity and that it is exploited to the full by local councils and their partners to the benefit of local people.

Questions which might be explored include:

Is there a shared understanding of what public health means today and what the relevant levers and policy instruments are?

How do local councils need to change in order to be able to enhance the effectiveness of the public health role?

How can Health and Wellbeing Boards gain more traction in terms of mainline services and actions than most LSPs and thematic partnerships did?

How should the local public health function relate to other features of the changing health landscape, including Public Health England, mental health trusts, the acute sector and the new commissioning arrangements?

Do the new arrangements provide for a new relationship with the voluntary and community sector in relation to public health?

There is a strong case against simply “lifting and shifting” the public health function from PCTs to local councils, but what are the building blocks of an alternative approach?

What is the role of local politicians and local political leadership in all this?

Initial thoughts on these questions and others are very welcome and will help to shape the shape and content of the discussion in Edinburgh.

Posted in Proposition 2: Local government is a public health org | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Who cares?

My last post here talked about petitions, and complained how ineffective they are as a way of understanding public opinion and seeking democratic support for action. Here’s a reasonable challenge to that view: petitions (and by extension opinion polls and tick-box consultations) are the best way of taking public views because they are the simplest and the quickest. People don’t have time to get involved in the complex trade-offs that good policy decisions require: they elect councillors and MPs specifically so they don’t need to get involved unless they are really opposed to a decision.

There’s a degree of truth to that. People are busy and don’t have a lot of time to spare. Those with most spare time and capacity are likely to be older and richer than the population as a whole. Politics and policy are complex things, and understanding an issue well – to the level of a policy analyst or researcher – is something that takes months rather than days or hours.

However, the degree of understanding that professional politicians and officers have is never likely to be shared by the population as a whole, or even a subset of active citizens. It sets the bar impossibly high to ask for a group of citizens that is both reasonably representative and informed to that level.

It also mistakes the role of participation in local democracy – not to replace experts, but to make clear the nature of public views on an issue to raise issues that might not otherwise be considered, and to give access to resources of public knowledge and effort that are not available to council staff.

There is an appetite for engagement, as well. In the 2010 Citizenship Survey, 72% of people said that it was important for them to be able to influence political decisions, while only 32% of the same sample thought that they actually could influence decisions. The existence of what – to use Cold War terminology – we might call the democracy gap is confirmed by the 2008 Place Survey, in which 27% said that they wanted to be more involved in local decisions, and the Hansard Audit of Political Engagement, which shows that 43% of people say they want to get more involved in their local area.

All very well, a sceptic might say, there is a desire for greater involvement in the abstract, but when people actually make the choice about how to spend their time, they spend a lot of time in the pub and not much time at Full Council. Maybe, but Full Council, as most readers of this blog will know, is not necessarily an arena that favours open democratic discussion with no fixed views or preconceptions. Imagine one of the people in the democracy gap – people who want to be more involved, but don’t understand quite how. Would they get much from turning up to a council meeting? Would they even know what was happening?

I think (as you might expect) that there is a target market for democracy, if government can work differently and engage differently. It sits somewhere between the 27% and the 43% in the various surveys quoted above. Even at 30% of the voting population, that’s a potential market of thirteen and a half million people, or about thirty thousand people in a typical local council area.

Can we find out who they are? On the basis of Place Survey data, they’re fairly well-spread around the country – the highest percentage in London (33%), lowest in the East Midlands (24%). People in Chesterfield were least interested in getting more involved (17%), but in Hackney almost two fifths were keen.

The seventh Hansard Society audit divided the population into eight categories ranging from the “politically committed” (10% of the voting age population), down to the “alienated/hostile” (9%). Over three-quarters of the “politically committed” vote in council elections, compared with barely 1% of the “alienated/hostile”. Almost a quarter were in the “disengaged/mistrustful” category, which had the second-lowest turnout at council elections, of only 10%. Perhaps local democracy efforts can’t reach them, at least not straight away, but that still leaves two thirds of the population – those in the other six Hansard categories – as a target group for greater engagement.

Specifically, there is a group identified by the most recent (eighth) Hansard audit, who are clear targets for engagement work. They are described by Hansard as “willing localists”, and make up 14% of the population, or just under six and half million people. They are not actively involved in community or socio-political activities, but are the most likely, realistically, to become so in the future.

There is a broad market for democracy –  a quarter of people are completely turned off by politics, slightly less than a quarter are already heavily involved. Our target should be the middle 50%. We know they want to be involved in issues, because they are joining single issue campaigns in ever-increasing numbers. We know that they have a mindset that doesn’t reject politics – more than 70% of the medium-commitment groups in the Hansard audit say that it’s one’s duty to vote, but less than half of them do.

How do we create engagement in local issues that gets to those middle voices without being swamped by the “active campaigners”? How can we create ways of engaging that allow people with little spare time to participate on the basis of evidence and information? These are some of the topics we’ll be covering at the summit – but we can start the discussion below.

Posted in Proposition 3: Put democracy back into localism | 3 Comments

“Enterprise zones – another way to help successful areas?”

Blog post by Catherine Howe, Chief Executive, Public-i

With the announcement of the second wave of enterprise zones (you can read about it here). I have been reading up on what they hope to achieve. To be honest – and having looked at various think tank pieces, news stories and also listened to an excellent File on Four programme. I am still a little confused given that the evidence of the last time we tried this (during the 1980s) they had mixed success.

According to a 1987 government evaluation, only 13,000 of the 63,300 jobs created in Enterprise Zones were new jobs, with the remainder displaced from other local areas. There is also evidence that indicates around 25% of new jobs in Enterprise Zones were displaced from within the same town (Source: Work Foundation). I was also reading opinion from SERC and other places which concurs. Have I missed the balancing evidence or is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul?

I am also slightly uneasy – and this is really speaking as someone who runs a business that would fit into the ‘creative industries / software’ category here – that you get the best results by creating these zones. I think there is a strong case for looking at smaller incubator style approaches that are run more like shared workspaces. I am watching the new Innovation Warehouse, which has been created in partnership with the City of London with a lot of interest. Larger parks and the space to build are needed by manufacturing – it’s an odd assumption to think they are appropriate for knowledge based businesses as well.

However the idea of tax relief, fast broadband and support around planning offered by an enterprise zone is very appealing. In fact tax relief of over £250,000 over 5 years would make me consider moving the business – but only within the area I am already located in. And this seems to be the rub – the enterprise zones seem to be an approach that works for areas who already have a growing business community. The fact that they are de-linked from regeneration – in spite of the rhetoric which talks about deprived areas there is no necessary connection to regeneration.

How will enterprise zones help areas that are a position of multiple deprivations which don’t have the small businesses and entrepreneurs who will move into the enterprise zone? I realise that they are only part of the picture and that the LEPs should be addressing these other issues – but the enterprise zones are currently where a lot of funding is being concentrated and as a result it’s not unreasonable to expect them to have a reasonable chance of success.

The elephant in the room continues to be the differential in starting capacity between different parts of the country. Enterprise zones may be a good solution to accelerate growth but possibly not for areas who are struggling with basic skills, educational outcomes and lack of infrastructure.

Posted in Proposition 5: Local government can drive economic growth | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Salford Riots: the best and the worst of our city

Salford clear-up, Photo by MEN Media

Following last week’s post from the chief executive of Haringey, this week we have we have the reflections of Barbara Spicer, chief executive of Salford. I am grateful to Barbara for writing for this blog and I find Barbara’s perspective particularly interesting. As well as being chief executive of Salford Council, Barbara is also chief executive of the Greater Manchester police authority and, therefore, has an immediate insight into the policing issues across the city as a whole. This makes Barbara’s claim that there were significant differences between the demographic and psychological profile of rioters in Salford compared to Manchester especially interesting. I’m not aware of this point having had much mainstream coverage put it certainly punctures the idea that the riots were a common phenomenon driven by a single policy failure (such as “culture” or “cuts”) and supports a more nuanced view of them, not just as multi-causal, but also as varied and distinct from each other.

Here’s what Barbara has to say:

“Like a lot of you, we’ve had a manic few days here in Salford. For me having a joint role as Chief Executive of the City Council and the Police has been particularly challenging.

But what I’ve been dealing with is nothing compared with what the police had to contend with when they arrived at Salford precinct on Tuesday. I have met with a lot of them since the riots and hearing what they faced that night is really humbling.

What hasn’t really come out in the news is how different the riots have been in the different parts of the country. For us and Manchester the differences were all the more noticeable because the cities are so close to one another. Despite there being only two miles between the two sites of the riots, the individuals involved and their intentions were worlds apart.

In Salford the focus was very much on violence rather than theft, the rioters were older and we believe a lot of them were from Organised Crime Groups. We’ve been working with the police for some time and are successfully cracking down on organised crime in the city, and they may well have seen this as their chance to hit back at the authorities.

But we won’t let them win. Everyone here at Salford City Council is committed to bringing these thugs to justice and we’re working closely with the police to publicise the images they have of offenders.

Another step we’re taking in Salford is to take legal action against any tenants convicted of taking part in the riots, with the intention of evicting them from their council homes. People who have so little respect for their local community do not deserve social housing and need to understand their actions do have consequences.

This has been welcomed by the vast majority of people living in the city, who are pleased to see us taking such robust action. They are the people I met on Wednesday morning when they turned up to help council officers clean up the precinct after the riots, refusing to let the criminals win.

At times like this it is always heart warming to see the true community spirit emerge. Local councillors here have been absolutely fantastic working with residents and helping them to get the city back to normality again. It really does make you proud.

Another thing I was delighted to hear this week is that all of our looked after children were safely back in their children’s homes by 8pm on the night of the riots. As corporate parents that was a huge relief for us and made us immensely proud of them for staying out of trouble.

Finally, I would just like to pay tribute to a few of the teams who really stood out as making a difference. Businesses told us that they had expected not to be able to access their premises with burnt out cars in the streets. But our Environmental Services Team was on site first thing on Wednesday morning and by 10am the shopping precinct was completely clear of debris. We had local businesses from across the city contacting us with offers of help. The council’s Business Services Team has been working with the businesses affected this week, many of them small family owned companies, to get them back on their feet again.

This crisis has really shown the best and the worst of all of the cities affected, but the good has by far outweighed the bad. The public reaction from across the country shows that we are not prepared to take this lying down and the harsh sentences that have already been passed to deal with the rioters will hopefully be the warning they need to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Posted in Proposition 3: Put democracy back into localism, Proposition 4: Public Services in a Networked World, Proposition 5: Local government can drive economic growth | Tagged , , | Leave a comment