Economic and social prosperity in Northern Ireland depends on our public services – well-educated young people; an effective health service; welfare services that support and incentivise the unemployed and disadvantaged; and safe streets and communities.
As the crunch on spending looks set to continue beyond this spending round and well into the decade, it is now more imperative than ever that our decision-makers on the Hill move to put our public services on a footing fit for the future. Looking across the water to what our colleagues in Whitehall have done, there is one initiative that stands out from the crowd in its vision as much more than simply a cost-cutting measure.
Community budgeting has the potential to transform services and rid us once and for all of the confusion and duplication that so often exists and that has time and again failed to deliver for those who depend most on services. By removing artificial boundaries and instead channelling money more coherently towards those it’s meant to reach, services will make a better impact and seemingly intractable social problems can finally begin to improve.
One troubled family helped by the recent pilots had beforehand required 250 state interventions in one year including 58 police call-outs and five arrests; five 999 visits to accident and emergency; two injunctions; and a Council Tax arrears summons. Through community budgeting, they were given targeted support by one team of professionals which resulted in them needing much less government support in the future, saving two-thirds of the costly £200,000 bill that covered this support.
Evidence shows that by allowing different parts of the system to work together where it makes sense to do so thus cutting waste and duplication, community budgeting could save local areas up to 15% of their annual budgets. When applied to current local authority spending in England, this could translate to a saving of approximately £18 billion per annum.
The fact that such a broad coalition of influencers – ranging from those in the current government and the opposition and local government leaders, to police and health workers, to private and third sector providers – were willing to voice their support publicly in a joint report from the CBI and the Municipal Journal recently, speaks volumes as to the mileage this idea has.
The Total Place pilots conducted under the previous government provide stark evidence that this is much more than a pipe dream. When 63 councils and local agencies around the country were freed to pool resources to tackle social problems which increasingly occur across artificial public sector boundaries, the results were astounding.
Services improved, users reported much higher satisfaction rates, and of course the savings figures would bring a smile to even the most hardened local authority FD! The Birmingham pilot delivered savings to the taxpayer of £9.50 for every £1 spent up-front on drug treatment alone.
Despite the overwhelming success at the early stages however, progress remains slow. The coalition government has committed to community budgets and launched 16 new pilots, however these are quite narrow in scope, focusing only on families with complex needs, and covered only 28 councils. In Northern Ireland, the drive has yet to hit and whilst there are surely plenty of advocates and ad hoc pockets of support, it is disappointing that this seminal initiative has made such little impact on our shores.
Whilst our politicians and indeed the media are very adept at catastrophizing about the state of the public finances, they’re less well known for their propensity to explore the solutions. As far as solutions to economic problems go, community budgeting is a pretty compelling one that would strengthen the block grant not just once but again and again, making it go further each year by finally channelling money in a way that makes sense.
Exploration within the policymaking will not be hampered however; the next workshop of the CBI-Deloitte Commissioners Network, a 40-strong group of business chiefs, charity leaders and senior civil servants, will focus in on community budgeting in more detail and chart a way forward for kick-starting it here in Northern Ireland.
Once our ideas are developed, we will then be engaging with decision-makers, stakeholders and citizens to make sure that a major opportunity to make every pound of taxpayers’ money go further is not missed.