Did it achieve anything? Have a read of the agreement here.
The purpose of this post is to shine some light on a previous generation of local government relations with central government – one that for today’s generation of teenagers and young adults might look baffling. What I hope it reveals is the complexity of local government and how the challenges they are expected to deal with inevitably involve a huge number of groups and organisations outside of their remit. Furthermore, I hope it will enable people to reflect on whether our existing structures, systems, and processes are fit for purpose if we want to make the improvements that the previous generation of politicians and ministers wanted to make.
Local Area Agreements.
Local Area Agreements were the flagship documents representing an overhaul of how local councils were managed by Central Government. They were developed by the Labour Government during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister, and led by the new Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly. They emerged from a White Paper / major policy document called Strong and Prosperous Communities, published in 2006. White Papers are statements of policy intent from ministers, stating in detail what they are going to do. Hence this White Paper being nearly 250 pages long.
Some of you may recall an age when corporate fonts were in all sorts of different styles, and images were randomly inserted in strange places, and tweeting was something done by our feathered friends.
“How does Central Government ‘manage’ Local Government – other than having the former starve the latter of funds and powers?”
That’s what it has felt like over the past 12 years of austerity: making it all but impossible for local councils to raise sufficient funds to deliver little more than essential / statutory public services required by law. It has been something I’ve blogged about lots. Essentially there are two major models of funding that ministers can have for local government:
- Councils having their own local taxation substantially topped up by central government grants at the discretion of ministers
- Constitutional independence for councils where they decide for themselves how to raise revenue to pay for statutory/constitutionally-required services
There are other models out there, but the reason I’ve picked these two is that we currently have the first, and other Western countries such as Germany and the USA have number 2. With the latter, changing the powers that local government has is more difficult than simply passing a new piece of legislation – it requires a change of constitution which for most countries involves a 2/3s majority. (This was something that some argued the EU Referendum should have had as its winning threshold).
A bit of history
Because of the way local government evolved since the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, improvements to local government have largely been piecemeal, then every so-often a government will try and bring in major reforms that nearly always leave the existing systems of funding unchanged: i.e. a property-based tax ( “The rates” ) to pay for maintenance of local council-run services, along with any new central government grants – for example running schools. Over the past couple of hundred years there has been the continual debate about what functions local councils should undertake. For much of that time the trend has been one of expansion and growing legal competency, until the Thatcher Government when things like the utilities and bus services were privatised and/or contracted out to the private sector and the not-for-profit sector.
The Royal Commission on Local Government 1966-69 commissioned by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government could have radically changed local government but he lost the 1970 general election and Edward Heath’s Conservatives put in place a system that broadly is still with us today.
Monitoring & data inputting
One of the biggest complaints from local councils in the early 2000s was the very paperwork-heavy and resource-intensive tasks of collecting and reporting data to central government even though it wasn’t clear how that information was being fed back into systems for improved policy-making. Think of all the data teachers still have to collect – it’s a lot like that. Other than having ministers reading out statistics in debates in Parliament, the impression I got from local council people during my civil service days was that they could have done without such paperwork. “Trust us to get on with the job”. They’d say. Furthermore, having two lines of accountability – one to their full councils and another to Whitehall made things tricky for local council leaders – especially where the two did not see eye-to-eye. Think house building targets in rural areas. The local residents might elect a council committed to stop house building, but central government might insist on a house building target far higher than councillors are prepared to tolerate. How do you resolve this?
198 things to measure, 35 of which have improvement targets attached to them.
You can read the 198 national indicator set here. The principle was that these 198 things reflected the most important issues in local areas across the country. The reality was that it was a negotiation between central government departments as to who could get the most of their own departmental interests into that set of 198.
Some of them make perfect sense – especially on housing:
- [National Indicator] NI [number] 158 – the % of non-decent council homes
- [National Indicator] NI [number] 156 – The number of households living in temporary accommodation
There is a thing called the Decent Homes Standard. For a Government that wants to improve the quality of homes people on low incomes live in, it makes sense to incentivise local councils to reduce the percentage of people living in homes that do not meet this standard. On homelessness, it makes sense to reduce the number of people living in temporary accommodation and/or who are homeless. Those councils that met or exceeded these targets were offered the incentive (if I recall correctly) of bonus funding from central government.
Other indicators in the set of 198 are *much harder* to measure and quantify.
- NI 2 – % of people who feel that they belong to their neighbourhood
- NI 5 – Overall/general satisfaction with local area
That’s why what ministers choose to collect data on matters – it affects whether governments, councils, and other organisations decide to take action. I still bear the scars of the Whitehall turf wars on this.
Note that 15 years has passed since the short-lived set of 198 indicators was agreed – the Coalition scrapped the entire system of reporting and monitoring in 2010/11. That’s why you don’t hear about such things any more.
“Should a future government bring them back?”
Given what we’ve been through over the past decade or so, I can’t see how such a top-down system would function in an already dysfunctional political system. Technological advances mean that there are much more efficient and effective ways for collecting some types of data, while those same advances have created new challenges and threats.
“Which indicators did Cambridgeshire choose?”
Actually, it’s not as straight-forward as the indicators in the national list inevitably got tweaked, changed, and amended to suit the challenges of local areas – in particular district councils. So there are far more than 35 listed, and some of the targets will be specific to a council (eg Fenland) and some even to a specific housing estate (eg Oxmoor in Huntingdon).
- Children and Young People p 16
- Mothers to be who quit smoking
- Breast feeding initiations
- Incidence of obesity among children under 11
- Teenage conception rate
- Activity or establishment of [mental health] Services
- Numbers of Yr 6 children in Fenland participating in educational sessions to promote healthy living and eating
- Percentage of children who regard themselves as smokers
- Percentage of under 18s who quit smoking
- Percentage of 16-18 year olds engaging in education, employment or training
- Children and young people reporting they are afraid of going to school because of bullying
- Young people reporting that they exercise hard at least 3 times a week
- The attainment of young people leaving care aged 16+
- Offending rates for children aged 10 or over looked after continuously for at least 12 months
- Health assessments and dental check-ups for looked after children
- The attainment of young and vulnerable children at [Key Stage 1 – age 5-7 years].
- The attainment of young and vulnerable children at [Key Stage 2 – age 7-11 years].
- …and so on for attainment which were legally required by the Department for Education.
- Safer and Stronger Communities p 25
- Number of Police Recorded [British Crime Survey] Comparator Crimes
- Number of police recorded violence against the person offences
- Proportion of police recorded crimes with a ‘DV marker’ that are incidences of repeat victimisation
- Number or premises in sample found selling alcohol to under 18 year olds
- Percentage of children in year 10 reporting they had consumed alcohol in a public space during the last 7 days. [15-year-old me is like: “If I answer “Yes” will you make it harder for me to get booze? If so, ***no! I don’t drink at all!***]
- Number of problem drug users in treatment in Cambridgeshire
- Number of problem drug users retained in treatment beyond 12 weeks
- Number of Class A drug supply offences brought to justice per 10,000 population
- Numbers recorded as drug related deaths
- Number of cases managed through the Drug Interventions Programme (DIP)
- Of those Prolific and Other Priority Offenders assessed by the DIP as appropriate, case managed through the DIP
- Number of accidental fire-related deaths in the home
- Number of deliberate fires
- Percentage of people surveyed who think vandalism, graffiti and other deliberate damage to property or vehicles is a very big/fairly big problem
- Percentage of people surveyed who think teenagers hanging around the streets is a very big/fairly big problem “People say “What do you do all day?” I don’t know….hanging around!”
- Percentage of people surveyed who think people being drunk or rowdy in public spaces is a very big / fairly big problem
- Number of people very satisfied with opportunities to participate in decision making processes which affect planning and other issues facing the area
- Number of Parishes completing a Parish Plan
- Number of Parish Councils achieving Quality Parish Status
- Percentage of people in Oxmoor surveyed who feel they can influence decisions affecting their local area
- Percentage of residents in Oxmoor who think that their local area got better or stayed the same over the past three years
- Citizen involvement in the creation of local Community Archives
- Number of people who agree or strongly agree that their local community is a place where people from different backgrounds and communities can live together harmoniously
- Number of racial incidents recorded by the local authority per 100,000 population
- Percentage or racial incidents that resulted in further action
- TBC – a target on voluntary sector activity
- Active libraries borrowers as a percentage of population
- Percentage of adults participating in at least thirty minutes moderate intensity sport and / or active recreation on three or more days a week
- Percentage of residents satisfied with arts activities
- Number of adult participants in Vital Communities Programme arts activities
- Number of bus journeys into, out of and within Cambridge
- Percentage of total household waste going to landfill
- Percentage of land and highways that is assessed as having combined deposits of litter and detritus that fall below an acceptable level
- % of the footway network where structural maintenance should be considered
- Access to archives either remotely or through physical visits
- Access to libraries and information services, either by physical visit or remotely, per head of population.
- Percentage of archives collection listed to current professional standards
- Percentage of archives collection record descriptions publicly available
- Number of individuals receiving training/learning opportunities in their local communities delivered through Community Access Points or Learning Centres
- Healthy Communities & Older People p 39
- Mortality from cancer in people aged under 75
- Number of people employed in workplaces with smoke free policies that meet the National Clean Air Standard
- Number of fully licensed premises that are smoke free as of 31st March 2007
- Number of road casualties
- Mortality from circulatory diseases in people aged under 75
- Number of people who attended NHS Stop Smoking Services who succeeded
- Mortality from suicide
- Number of people in the Fenland District benefiting from an exercise referral scheme
- Access to mental health crisis services
- Number of patients waiting more than 48 hrs to be seen at a genito-urinary medicine clinic
- Life expectancy inequalities within the county – reduce polarisation/raise the average
- Male life expectancy for Fenland
- Health inequalities
- Number of Fenland residents with disabilities who are members of Fenland District Council gyms
- Numbers of older people participating more in the community generally
- Numbers of older people over 55 years old using the library service
- Increase the level of satisfaction with social services among people aged 65+ who use social care services
- Number of recorded dwelling burglaries of people aged 60+
- Improving the Quality of Life for Older People
- Promoting independence of older people
- Carers’ Support Services
- Economic Development & Enterprise p 52
- Number of enterprise hubs developed in Cambridgeshire
- Increase the number of meaningful work education experience for 14-19 year olds
- Occupancy figures at E Space North and South Business Centres
- Occupancy at South Fens Business Centre
- Social enterprise development across Cambridgeshire
- Sectoral Job Growth
- Proportion of the Population who have good access to main centres and key services by public transport and cycling
- % of Land held by National Trust in Wicken Fen vision area
- Number of adults obtaining a Skills for Life qualification at entry levels 1-3 (up to A-level)
- Adults with Level 1 qualifications in literacy & numeracy
- Number of Adults who gain a Level 2 qualification (GCSE) in the subjects listed above or any other Level 2 qualification
- Number of employees participating in employer sponsored training
- Mean indices of deprivation score across Fenland Links super output areas
- Numbers of disabled people supported into work
- Reduce discrimination from employers against disabled people
- Aspirations, skills and employment potential of deprived communities
So you can sort of see why it was tempting for an incoming government to simply scrap the lot. It also made it easier for the Coalition to tell local councils that they can now get rid of all of the officers that were responsible for all of the work involved collecting the data, and negotiating targets with the regional government offices – the latter scrapped in 2011.
The agreements never had long enough to bed in so we can’t tell what sort of impact they had.
Furthermore, the rising profile of young people becoming active in environmental campaigning amongst other things, combined with the growth of social media means that the selection of any indicators to measure could be done from the bottom up rather than top-down with ministers and senior officials fighting it out with each other. For example, what would a top 200 set of indicators selected by under-18s look like, compared with say the over-65s?
Or maybe…we could have a revamp of the old Improvement Commissioners.
Food for thought?
If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to: