The future of local public services - Looking ahead to 2012

Police officersPublic services are having to move with the times and councils are under pressure to provide more for less. David Cameron has revealed some of his plans for the future of public services and first takes a look at what others think.


Margaret Eaton, LGA chairman

David Cameron wrote recently of his aspiration to release the grip of state control on public services, writes LGA chairman Baroness Margaret Eaton.

His article in the Daily Telegraph comes ahead of the publication of the government's open public services white paper, due out shortly. I support the aim of his vision – to give people more control over their lives. I agree with him that we have far too many targets and top down levers. I would also agree that given how complex social problems can be, one-size-fits-all solutions don't work. And we certainly can't afford the costly national programmes we currently have. I have been keen to stress in meetings with ministers ahead of the white paper how councils already have the ability to, and frequently do, commission services from the private and voluntary sector. And the decision to privatise a frontline service must be primarily in the interests of people who rely on it.

This is not new territory for local government and we have in fact been leading the way and finding efficiencies through working like this for years. I still believe that so much more could be achieved if, instead of bringing forward new initiatives (and I hope that this white paper will not lead to burdensome legislation) we look right at the source of the problem – overbearing Whitehall. I am concerned that sometimes it is easy to cast local government as being part of a vast bureaucracy which denies people what they want. We have demonstrated with our work on Total Place and now with community budgets how clearly our hands are tied by central government, and how frustrating it is for us not to be able to meet the needs of our residents as perfectly as we would like.

Our research shows that while £7,000 per person is spent on local services like health, education and care for the elderly, only £350 is controlled by the politicians local people elect to represent them. I hope to see in the white paper more action taken on Whitehall's centralising tendencies. It is difficult for civil servants to relinquish power but that's necessary if we are going to make community budgets (the successor to Total Place) a real success.

Local powers

Whitehall departments must be prepared to devolve power and budgets in order to allow local authorities the freedoms and flexibilities they need to design services around people's needs instead of around institutions. We know this is difficult. Recently, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced that 45 data collections are being rolled back - which is entirely welcome. However, another 18 have already been announced in their place! Radical change does need to take place. For too long we've been frustrated by the red tape that binds us and I hope the reforms will include ways not just to open up the state but to open up Whitehall.

Mike Bennett, assistant director general, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE)
"Open public services rely on an open society where public resources are used in ways which are accountable, democratic, responsive and transparent. For me that means decisions about how to distribute limited public resources are ultimately democratic decisions: this is entirely compatible with vibrant private markets and with greater civic and voluntary sector provision."

Steve Wyler, chief executive designate of Locality
"The future need be neither slash-and-burn, nor encroachment by private monopolies, but rather a new generation of capable and creative co-designers in the public and community sectors. I see extraordinary people showing the way in development trusts, settlements, and in town halls too. But it needs to become the norm, not the exception."

Brendan Barber, general secretary, TUC

"The plans to open up almost the entire public sector to private providers are misguided, dangerous and undemocratic. They will lead to a postcode lottery where wealthier individuals travel or pay to find the best services, leaving everyone else to rely on overstretched local provision. "Private companies have been given the green light to make huge profits from the services we all rely on. Bureaucracy will increase, with huge amounts spent on consultants and tendering and managing contracts. "This contract-based culture will create plenty of work for lawyers but leave the most vulnerable without a voice, reducing accountability and public scrutiny." 

Susan Anderson, director for public services, CBI

The prime minister is spot on when he says that healthcare, education and other vital public services can be improved by opening them up to greater competition. This competition drives innovation and efficiency which will lead to better outcomes for service users and taxpayers. For residents to receive the best possible services, local authorities must choose the best provider, irrespective of the sector. "All members of the community; be they local groups, public servants or businesses, should have the right to challenge poorly performing public services. This will help to deliver the ultimate goal of better services for the public. "

Peter Holbrook, chief executive, Social Enterprise Coalition

 "We support the drive to open up the public sector to other providers as the state is not always best placed to deliver the best service. Our worry is that the current financial climate will create a demand for services based on price and ease of commissioning, rather than on quality and long-term efficiency and improvement. In this case the power of large private businesses to get in the door first will stifle genuine competition and push out smaller providers including some social enterprises."

17 December 2014