Local authority housing companies: getting back into building

Last December, research by Inside Housing magazine found that more than a third of English local authorities have already – or are planning to – set up their own housing companies.

The research showed that 98 out of 252 councils were considering the establishment of a private housing development company, or had already established one.  That’s a significant increase on the seven housing companies that existed in 2014.

The factors driving council housing companies

The 2011 Localism Act gave local councils the powers to establish their own private companies, enabling them to borrow money more cheaply and avoid government-imposed restrictions. A mixture of motives is now prompting local authorities to enter the housebuilding business. Some see the new companies as sources of additional revenue. In addition, homes built by these private companies are not liable to right-to-buy. The Inside Housing research also found that a number of councils want to target income generated on tackling homelessness in their area.

At the same time, councils are facing funding pressures. “Local authority budgets are biting more and more,” Croydon Council’s director of development Colm Lacey explained to The Architects’ Journal in February.

“For example, in Croydon we’ve lost more than half of our central government budget since 2010. That’s a slow drip-drip of a loss of resource. Quite quickly, you come to realise that you need to throw something else in to meet the gap.”

Most companies are being established as wholly owned subsidiaries of councils, while some are solely management companies, letting stock built by their parent local authority. Many are funded by councils borrowing money from the Public Works Loan Board at low rates and then lending it to the company at a market rate.

Early adopters

The types of councils establishing housing companies are very varied, from rural to urban, and across the political spectrum. There is also a wide geographical spread, with a growing number located in London.

Among the councils pioneering their own housing companies is Newham Council in east London, which established its Red Door Ventures company in 2014 to provide homes at market rents, with a third of profits to be invested in social or affordable housing. The company’s properties are built on land bought from the council by the company using a local authority loan. Already, three developments have been built, and planning permission has been given for two more.

Another council-established private development company is Brick by Brick, set up by the London Borough of Croydon Council in 2016. The borough owns a significant amount of land, but has found that procuring agreements with developers has rarely generated benefits to the council in terms of increased land values or development returns. In an interview with Local Government Chronicle, Croydon’s Colm Lacey explained the reasoning behind Brick by Brick:

“The model allows the council as land-owner, sometime finance provider and sole shareholder to extract value from the core components of development activity – funding, building and selling. It maximises both affordable housing supply and return from development activity to Croydon residents, and allows the council to reinvest in core services.”

 Learning from the pioneers: the upside and the downside

As more local authorities move towards establishing their own housing companies, they can learn from the experiences of early adopters, who can advise them on what to watch out for. This includes analysing council powers in relation to the establishment of a company, provision of funding, transfer of land, decision-making arrangements and potential conflicts of interest (for example in relation to planning).

At a time of acute housing shortages, the creation of house building companies takes on increased significance. Chartered Institute of Housing deputy chief executive Gavin Smart agrees that housing companies can help council deliver more homes, but warns:

“The downside is that the need to cross-subsidise might mean that their ability to produce new homes at genuinely affordable, social rents can be limited. It’s vital that they continue to prioritise building new homes at social rents.”

A rising tide or a drop in the ocean?

The trend towards council housing companies shows no sign of waning.

  • Cambridge City Council set up its housing company in January 2016, and the following May the company handed over its first rental property to new tenants.
  • The first of 128 new homes built by Gloriana – Thurrock Council’s housing company – will be completed this year in Tilbury. The development has been created to keep up with demand for homes from increasing numbers of people coming to work in the area, mainly in freight and retail.
  • Meridian Homestart is a company set up by the Royal Borough of Greenwich to offer high-quality homes for local working families to rent. These homes are let at 20% below local market rent levels in order to help working families who would otherwise find it hard to buy or rent on the open market.
  • A shortage of private accommodation has prompted Bracknell Forest Council to use its housing company to provide better and cheaper housing for homeless people.

At the moment, the contribution of council housing companies towards tackling the housing crisis is relatively small. Barking and Dagenham’s housing company, Reside, has so far delivered around 600 homes; while Blueprint, a joint venture between Nottingham Council and Igloo Regeneration, has completed 245 homes. That’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee recommendation of 300,000 new-build homes each year.

Even so, housing companies have come a long way in a short time, and their rapid growth signals a much bigger long-term vision. As Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham explains:

“We’re trying to correct 30 to 40 years of failure in the housing market, but it will take time.”


If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other housing blog posts:

Metro mayors – what is their worth?

market_townBy Heather Cameron

As voters went to the polls once again on 4th May for the local elections, six combined authorities in England saw directly-elected metro mayors chosen for the first time, as part of the government’s devolution agenda.

The six areas – Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, the Tees Valley, the West of England and the West Midlands – account for almost 20% of the population of England. This means a third of the English population, including London, now have a directly-elected metro mayor.

Advocates of the role believe metro mayors have the potential to transform both local democracy and local economies. However, not everyone is as supportive.

What are directly-elected metro mayors and what are their responsibilities?

Directly-elected metro mayors are chairs of their area’s combined authority, elected by the local population. Their role involves working in partnership with the combined authority to exercise the powers and functions devolved by central government, set out in the local area’s devolution deal. In contrast to existing city mayors, who are also directly elected, or local council leaders who make decisions for, and on behalf of, their local authorities, metro mayors have the power to make decisions for whole city regions.

The devolved powers predominantly focus on strategic matters, including housing and planning, skills, transport and economic development, with the exception of Greater Manchester, which also has powers and funding related to criminal justice and health and social care. Each devolution deal is very much tailored to the local area however, so the combined authorities will have varying powers and budgets.

The aim of metro mayors is to support local economic growth, while providing greater democratic accountability.

Concerns

While the government believes the role ensures clear accountability over devolved powers and funding, concerns have been voiced within local government itself about the accountability, effectiveness and necessity of the incoming combined authority mayors. And democratic support for the role has always been weak.

In terms of accountability, metro mayors will not be accountable to an elected assembly, as in London, but only to their cabinet made up of other council leaders. This, and their potentially wide-ranging powers have been highlighted as a concern in terms of back-room stich-up deals being created between mayors and individual authorities“.

Their introduction has also been described as “potentially worrying” as the local people were never given the opportunity to have a say on the new roles and that, instead, they are products of ‘deals done behind closed doors between councillors and representatives of central government.’

It appears rather ironic that this proposal of greater devolution may actually reflect an imposition from central government of its own policies and desires on local government.

Nevertheless, the new metro mayors do enable greater local control over local matters and have been argued to represent the best chance yet of ensuring devolution is sustainable over time. It is also likely they will get increasing powers over time, as in London.

But the question remains whether they will facilitate local economic growth and help to re-balance the English economy.

Final thoughts

Whether the new metro mayors will succeed in this aim or not, only time will tell. There has been little evidence of improved performance under elected mayors in England so far, although it has been suggested there is some evidence that their introduction has resulted in quicker and more transparent decision-making, that the mayor had a higher public profile, that the council was better at dealing with complex issues, and that there was improved relationships between partners.

Some of the successes of the London mayor have also been suggested to be an indication of the potential impact of the directly-elected mayor role.

As has recently been argued, their success, or otherwise, “should be judged on whether they improve prospects for the people who live in their city regions, stimulating growth and getting local public services working better”.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on devolution:

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Are councils embracing an agile future … or is it cost-saving without the transformation?

By Heather Cameron

An increasingly diverse working population means that more people require and expect enhanced flexibility to help them balance their lives at work and at home, manage a range of different caring responsibilities and transition into retirement, for example, by reducing hours or through adaptations to how they work.” (CIPD, 2014)

The needs of the workforce is changing. No longer is nine to five office working the norm as more and more employees expect flexible working environments.

According to the CIPD, these changing needs, combined with the fast pace of economic change, require organisations to adopt more agile working practices. And this applies to both the public and private sectors.

What is agile working?

The concept of agile working refers to a way of working that incorporates time and place flexibility. It enables employees to work where, how and when they choose, subject to business needs, in order to improve work/life balance and maximise productivity. It is a move away from the reliance on the office location towards a culture that incorporates remote working and more dynamic office spaces.

The Agile Future Forum defines agile working practices along four dimensions:

  • Time: when do they work? (e.g. part-time working; staged retirement)
  • Location: where do they work? (e.g. people working across multiple sites)
  • Role: what do they do? (e.g. multi-skilling)
  • Source: who is employed? (e.g. using contractors or temps)

In addition to offering practical solutions to help improve the work-life balance of the workforce, agile working can also provide the opportunity to reduce and control operational costs. One of the biggest costs for any organisation, whether in the private or public sector, is the fixed costs associated with buildings and furniture.

As local government finances continue to be squeezed, councils face an ongoing dilemma of having to try and reduce costs while maintaining service delivery. So perhaps agile working is a way of achieving this.

Cost savings?

 As a recent briefing paper on agile working in the public sector has highlighted, it is no surprise that the public sector estate should be earmarked for cost savings and reform, given its vast scale. The local government estate consists of over 180,000 buildings, with a value of £250 billion and annual running costs of £25 billion.

Council offices are also often housed in old inefficient buildings that are often located in prime real estate sites that could be sold for redevelopment. “They have become valuable assets that are ill-suited to their current purpose.”

And many of these buildings are underutilised. According to the briefing paper, the majority of local government buildings have a desk occupancy rate of 45% and a meeting room occupancy rate of 60% – meaning that there can be as many as 297,000 empty desks on any given day and numerous underutilised meeting and conference rooms.

It is therefore no wonder we have seen a move by councils to introduce agile working in recent years.

Agile working in local government

Earlier this year, it was reported that Angus Council plans to invest £2.2 million in two buildings to promote agile working among its staff. This forms part of the council’s plans to close 32 offices in a bid to save almost £5 million a year from its budget.

Head of technical and property services at Angus said:

“The investment in works and furniture will provide modern office environments to support staff adopting new ways of working aligned with the agile culture, while reducing the council’s existing estate portfolio.”

In 2013 Monmouthshire Council opened a new £6 million headquarters with only 88 desks for 200 staff. The new office was created to help facilitate the council’s agile working policy and reduce costs.

Lambeth Council is moving from 14 operating sites to just 2, with a 10:6 desk ratio. The council’s flexible working strategy aims to help reduce its real estate costs by £4.5 million per year.

It has been argued that the main catalyst for change across councils has been the creation of the government’s One Public Estate initiative, launched in 2013.

Under the initiative, councils in England have freed up land for around 9,000 homes and created 20,000 jobs. It is expected that the councils involved will raise £129 million in capital receipts from land sales and cut running costs by £77 million over 5 years.

Final thoughts

The potential cost savings from agile working would seem undeniable. But does the adoption of agile working in local government represent true transformation?

Of course, it is more difficult to embed a shift in culture change within an organisation than it is to merely convince people that agile working is beneficial. Nevertheless, the success stories from Timewise Councils suggest that transformation is happening.


If you enjoyed reading this post, you might like our previous post on flexible working.

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Council Tax referendums: power to the people?

ballot box

Since the 2012-13 financial year, council tax increases beyond the government’s limit can trigger local referendums. But are they having an impact on policy?

The Council Tax: before and after localism

Local government spending in Great Britain is paid for by three main sources:

  • central government
  • business rates
  • council tax

The council tax pays for about a quarter of all local services. However, cuts in funding from central government have put pressure on local authorities trying to maintain and improve services. As a result, in recent years many councils have been forced to impose council tax rises. This in turn has generated opposition from local residents and charges from central government that the increases are excessive.

Previously, if ministers believed that local authorities were increasing taxes excessively they had the power to cap council tax rises. However, in 2010, the Conservative general election manifesto promised to give residents the power to veto excessive council tax increases. The measure was included in the coalition government’s programme for government and introduced in the Localism Act of 2011.

The thresholds for council tax rises

The Localism Act, which applies only in England, gives local communities the power to decide on council tax increases above a certain limit.  The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government determines this limit, which has to be approved by the House of Commons.

If a local authority proposes to raise taxes above the limit they must obtain approval from local voters in a referendum.

For the 2016-17 financial year, the government proposed the following thresholds:

  • local authorities with social care responsibilities – 4% (an extra 2% to fund social care)
  • district councils, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), fire and rescue authorities and the Greater London Authority (GLA): 2%
  • Districts and PCCs whose council tax level is in the lowest quartile of their type of authority may raise council tax by up to £5.00 on a Band D bill (which may be a greater rise than 2%).

This means, for example, that a local authority with social care responsibilities wishing to raise its council tax above 4% would have to organise a referendum on the proposed increase. In addition, the authority would have to make substitute calculations that would take effect if the proposed increase is rejected in the referendum.

Triggering a referendum

In March 2016, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy (CIPFA) found that many councils are set to increase council tax close to the 3.99% maximum allowed under the referendum cap.

Few councils have so far set council taxes at a level that would trigger a referendum.

In 2015, the Green Party on Brighton and Hove Council failed to secure backing from the other parties for a 5.99% council tax rise. A settlement of 1.99% was eventually agreed, but the Greens said a bigger rise would have helped protect services for the elderly, adults in care, children and those living below the poverty line.

Bedfordshire says “No”

In May 2015, residents in Bedfordshire became the first in the country to vote in a referendum triggered by a decision to raise the council tax. The county’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Olly Martins, increased the amount of the council tax for Bedfordshire Police by 15.84% compared to the previous year. He claimed that the increase would provide funds for more police officers.

However, the rise was rejected by almost 70% of voters, and the council had to issue new bills based on the lower increase of 1.99%.

Mr Martins said the result would mean a reduction of up to 135 uniformed officers from the existing 1,067. He also raised concerns about the rules on the wording on referendum ballot papers and awareness-raising during the campaign.

But Richard Fuller, the Conservative MP for Bedford claimed that the £350,000 spent on holding the referendum, and the £250,000 for re-billing meant that Mr Martins had shown “incredibly poor judgement”.

Here to stay

With only one council tax referendum to consider, it’s still too early to assess the impact such polls may have on policy. However, the costs and time-consuming nature of organising referendums of this kind may be acting as a deterrence to raising council tax bills above the referendum cap.

The government remains committed to the policy of council tax referendums, and has suggested that it could be extended to parish councils. In March 2014, the Labour Party confirmed that there were no plans to abolish the referendum principles. However, there is no guarantee that this will be the party’s policy going into the next general election.

For the foreseeable future, council tax referendums are here to stay.


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Budget 2016 – 5 messages for local government

One pound coin on fluctuating graph. Rate of the pound sterling

By Heather Cameron

Last week George Osborne revealed the details of his 2016 Budget, at the centre of which was a major deterioration of the forecast for productivity growth. Last year, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) projected an average growth in productivity per hour of 1.9% between 2015-16 and 2020-21; that average is now 1.7%.

As a result, a further £3.5 billion of savings from public spending is to be found in 2019/20. While Osborne has suggested these savings are equivalent to 50p in every £100 the government spends, experts have warned that the figure is closer to £2 or £3 for services that haven’t been protected.

What does it mean for local government?

Despite no direct cuts for local government, it remains unclear where these savings will come from. And with ring fencing of much public spending, local government may yet again bear the brunt of these cuts one way or another.

Business rates

Concerns have been raised over the announcement to extend business rate relief, the revenue from which is 50% retained by councils. It was revealed that this will remove £7 billion from the total take in England over the next five years; 600,000 small businesses will pay no rates at all from next year.

While good news for small businesses, there are fears it could leave a huge hole in local government finances as all locally raised business rates are to be fully devolved by the end of 2020. This will be accompanied by the phasing out of central government grants, and the devolution of additional spending responsibilities.

The government says that “local government will be compensated for the loss of income as a result … and the impact considered as part of the government’s consultation on the implementation of 100% business rate retention in summer 2016.”

But details of how such compensation will work remain unknown. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has suggested that the government’s plans for reimbursing local government is “nigh on impossible”.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), if protection for council budgets isn’t extended to beyond the devolution of business rates, councils stand to lose £1.9bn per year, or 2.9% of their total revenues.

Benefits cuts

Further cuts to welfare spending could also have a knock-on effect. The Chancellor outlined controversial plans to reform Personal Independent Payments (PIP) for disabled people, to save £1.3 billion. Overall, £4.4 billion will be cut from benefits for disabled people over the course of the parliament.

The cuts to PIP have been described as ‘devastating’ for disabled people, with many relying on them to live independently. They could therefore lead to increasing pressure on already stretched local services.

Even the government’s own party members criticised these cuts, which have since led to the shock resignation of Iain Duncan Smith and a government U-turn on the reforms to PIP, which will now not go ahead.

But there is no alternative plan to fill the hole left by this U-turn so local government may still need to brace themselves for cuts elsewhere.

Education

Under the education reforms, every state school in England is to become an academy by 2020 or have a plan in place to do so by 2022, ending the century-old role of local authorities as providers of education.

But, as our recent blog has highlighted, there are ongoing concerns over the academy programme with little evidence to justify it.

The plans have been criticised by councils and teaching unions. Chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) children and young people board, said:

We have serious concerns that regional schools commissioners still lack the capacity and local knowledge to have oversight of such a large, diverse and remote range of schools.”

Ofsted rated 82% of council maintained schools as good or outstanding, while the results of recent HMI inspections of academies has been described as “worrying”. The findings also highlighted a “poor use of public money”, something that has been reiterated by the LGA.

In response, the LGA noted that “councils have been forced to spend millions of pounds to cover the cost of schools becoming academies in recent years”.

Devolution deals

There was some better news for local government in the form of new devolution deals with the West of England, East Anglia, and Greater Lincolnshire. The West of England and East Anglia will each receive a £900 million investment fund over 30 years to boost economic growth, while Greater Lincolnshire’s deal is worth £450 million.

New powers over the criminal justice system are also to be transferred to Greater Manchester and business rates are to be fully devolved to the Greater London Authority next year, 3 years before everyone else.

The LGA welcomes these deals as recognition of the economic potential of all local areas and calls for a return to the early momentum in which similar deals were announced last year.

Flood defences

Another positive for local government was the £700 million funding boost for flood defences by 2020-21, including projects in York, Leeds, Calder Valley, Carlisle and across Cumbria, to be funded by a 0.5% increase in the standard rate of Insurance Premium Tax.

Considering the extent of recent winter flooding, this was welcomed by local government as a “step in the right direction”.

However, the LGA has stated that councils will need further help from government once the full cost of recent damage emerges. It has also called for flood defence funding to be devolved to local areas so the money can be spent on where it is really needed.

Final thoughts

So despite no direct cuts for local government, and the welcome boost to local economies and flood defences, it remains to be seen whether local government will lose out financially in the longer term.


Read our related blog on the total academisation of schools.

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Supercouncils: questions raised about new powers for England’s combined authorities

town hall photo

Image: James Carson

Just over a year ago, Manchester began blazing a trail for devolution in England. Ten local authorities in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) signed a deal with George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for the transfer of powers in areas such as transport and skills from central to local government.

Since then, the English devolution bandwagon has picked up speed. After the general election in May, the newly-elected Conservative government introduced a Cities and Devolution Bill , creating a framework for the transfer of powers to the regions, and making provision for directly elected mayors.

During the summer, the Chancellor invited cities, towns and communities across the UK to submit their own devolution proposals, and by September 38 submissions had been received (including a number from Scotland and Wales).

Meanwhile, further deals have been announced, giving greater autonomy to local authorities in Sheffield, Cornwall, the North East of England and the Tees Valley. In November, two further deals were announced for the West Midlands and Liverpool.

As its momentum gathers pace, questions have arisen over the nature and implications of devolution for England’s cities and regions.

The devolution time frame

In October, a survey for Local Government Chronicle (LGC) highlighted concerns about the devolution timetable. 69% of the 45 chief executives and deputies responding to the survey indicated that the seven-week timeframe given to put a proposal together had been too tight. Of those councils which had not submitted a bid, 38% said they could not arrange a partnership with another authority, while 8% said they could not convince politicians in their area to agree.  However, the survey also indicated that 15% of councils were holding back on bids to see how other authorities fared first.

Accountability, transparency, public involvement

Some of the key governance issues surrounding devolution were considered in a report by the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

The report was critical of the secrecy of the deal-making process, noting that details were only being released when agreements had been reached:

“Local people – anyone, indeed, not involved in the negotiations – need to understand what devolution priorities are being arrived at and agreed on. Increased public exposure in this process will lead to a more informed local debate. At the very least, the broad shape and principles of a bid for more devolved powers should be opened up to the public eye.”

The report argued that governance arrangements for the work that combined authority areas will be doing in future need to satisfy three conditions:

  • Accountability: decision-makers must clearly take responsibility, and engage with those seeking to hold them to account (non-executives, the public, and others)
  • Transparency: it must be clear (to professionals, elected councillors and the public) who is making decisions, on what, when, why and how
  • Involvement: a commitment to public involvement should be seen as central to good governance.

Directly elected mayors

In 2012, plans to replace local council cabinets with directly elected mayors were rejected by voters in nine English cities, including Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Leeds.

However, the government has insisted that devolving powers to English regions is now conditional on the inclusion of directly elected mayors. In May the chancellor explained why he thought this was so important:

“It’s right people have a single point of accountability; someone they elect, who takes the decisions and carries the can. So with these new powers for cities must come new city-wide elected mayors who work with local councils. I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”

George Jones, Emeritus Professor of Government at the London School of Economics, has asserted that the concentration of power in one person is undesirable:

“…the advantage of collective leadership is it enables exploration of policy from different perspectives. Colleagues can consider possible impacts of policy in a variety of contexts, spotting pitfalls ahead and the consequences for different people and groups. A single person is unlikely to represent the diverse complexities of a large urban, metropolitan or county region area better than can collective leadership.”

The journey to greater autonomy for England’s regions has only just begun, but it’s already clear that the path to devolution will not be straightforward.


Read more about English devolution in our previous blogs:

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Budget cuts hit research in councils’ adult social care departments

 

By Morwen Johnson

The news that budget pressures have affected councils’ ability to carry out research in adult social care won’t come as any surprise to those working in the sector. Councils have cut £4.6bn from adult social care budgets since 2009-10, equivalent to almost a third of net real terms spend, according to Adass. And with research seen as non-essential, it will always lose out in favour of frontline services and care packages.

A recent survey carried out by the Social Services Research Group (SSRG) and commissioned by the Personal Social Services Research Unit (PSSRU), highlighted the scale of the problem though, finding that there were fewer staff to do research, and those who were left had fewer resources and less support.

Dr Chris Rainey, one of the report authors commented: “In-house research is critical to finding out what, how and why services are delivered and what difference they make. The survey points to the need to reinvest in local research capacity to ensure sound evidence is used”.

Barriers to the use of research

As well as low capacity to undertake their own research on local needs, the survey also identified restrictions on training and professional development.

Like other professions, those working in public health and social services face barriers to keeping up with the latest evidence and commentary. This includes lack of time but also the accessibility of much research (both in terms of knowing it is out there and being able to understand how research relates to practice).

The report highlighted the risk that “reliance on internet-based training and information … may result in a lack of exposure to critical debate and an over-reliance on ‘received wisdom’”.

What our members say

The findings reflect our own experience in meeting the information needs of council staff. We’ve a number of adult social care departments who use our Information Service and once staff realise the time savings we offer, they become champions of the service to colleagues. As our team is made up of information professionals and researchers, we offer experience that can be lacking internally. Resources include peer-reviewed journals, grey literature, books and practice-based case studies and evaluations – which won’t be found by searching Google.

Staff also use us for CPD purposes – nowadays spending on event and conference attendance is unlikely to be approved, but our briefings and current awareness services can help keep them up-to-date with essential topics. We also have a lot of resources on general management issues, such as managing teams, benchmarking, performance, equalities and communication.

“From time to time, we review this service and our last review showed that those who use it regularly either in a corporate capacity or in our major strategic services value it highly, describing it as quick, easy, and comprehensive. It gives staff access to a wide range of information and keeps them up-to-date across many areas that are of direct relevance.”

“I recently completed a Post Graduate course and used it as my first reference point at the beginning of each module. The service saved me a lot of time in searching for articles and books and the staff were extremely helpful. The library is well stocked and I didn’t need to purchase any books for the course.”

“Having access to the on-demand research service is a real plus, and most of our staff see real advantage to that. It saves them time in the long run and frees them up to do the day job.

The threat of short-termism

With resources in social care departments likely to remain very tight, but with practitioners under more pressure to deliver than ever, the question is how can local authorities retain and enhance the evidence base it needs to make decisions effectively?

And how can practitioners engage with the research and analysis on key developments in policy that affect social care services, such as demographic change, housing need, and independent living?

It’s worth remembering that local authority social services researchers were introduced as a result of a recommendation of the 1968 Seebohm Report. This report stressed the need for research and evaluation to be ‘a continuous process, accepted as a familiar and permanent feature of any department or agency concerned with social provision.”

But as we approach another Spending Review, it’s likely that adult social care services will face more cuts. This is despite national organisations representing the sector issuing a statement in October arguing that the sustainability of the sector has now reached a ‘crunch’ point.

Focusing on efficiency savings and short-term interventions may seem the only option at the moment, but we risk just patching up problems rather than delivering services which take a holistic and long-term view of outcomes. And that’s why recognising the value of research and evidence should be a key part of decision-making in every part of the public sector.


We are currently offering a free trial of our service for local authorities. Contact us for more information.

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The Licensing Act ten years on: ‘ruinous excess’ or a more civilised drinking culture?

By Heather Cameron

‘Unbridled hedonism is precisely what [the Licensing Act] is about to unleash with all the ghastly consequences that will follow.’

This was what the Daily Mail declared in 2005 in anticipation of the relaxation of the licensing laws. Ten years on, a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) claims that this relaxation of the laws did not have the ruinous results predicted by many at the time. On the contrary, the report’s findings suggest that the Act has actually benefited consumers and that violent crimes and other alcohol-related problems have declined.

What changed a decade ago

Introduced in 2005, the Licensing Act abolished set licensing hours in an attempt to make the system more flexible and reduce problems of drinking and disorder associated with a standard closing time, effectively allowing for ‘24-hour drinking’.

Opening hours of premises are now set locally through the conditions of individual licences. The Act gave licensing authorities new powers over licensed premises, whilst giving local people a greater say in individual licensing decisions. The aspiration was that in the longer term its provisions, together with other government initiatives, would help to create a more benign drinking culture.

Many, however, believed these reforms would lead to increased alcohol consumption, more binge-drinking, a worsening of alcohol-fuelled violence and crime, and more alcohol-related attendances to hospital A&E departments.

What actually happened

The IEA’s findings show these fears were unfounded. Key findings of the report include:

  • Alcohol consumption – the consumption of alcohol has fallen by 17% since 2005, the greatest reduction in UK drinking rates since the 1930s.
  • Binge-drinking – rates of binge-drinking have declined for every age group since 2005, with the biggest fall among 16 to 24 year olds (from 29% to 18%). Rates of teetotalism are now as high amongst 16 to 24 year olds as they are amongst pensioners.
  • Violent crime – violent crime fell in the first year following the Act and has declined in most years since. The rate of violent crime has fallen by 40% since 2004/05, incidents of crimes largely aggravated by alcohol have dropped sharply and domestic violence has declined by 28%. Although some evidence suggests that there has been a rise in violent crime between 3am and 6am, this has been offset by a larger decline at the old closing times.
  • Health outcomes – the evidence from A&E departments suggests that there was either no change or a slight decline in alcohol-related admissions after the Act was introduced. Alcohol-related hospital admissions have continued to rise, although at a slower pace than before the Act’s introduction, and there has been no rise in the rate of alcohol-related mortality. There was also a statistically significant decline in late-night traffic accidents following the Act’s enactment.

It would therefore appear that the greater flexibility afforded by the Act which has allowed for increased availability of alcohol has not coincided with a surge in intemperance as predicted.

Rather, by providing greater choice, perhaps the Act has empowered the adult population to act more responsibly. At a time when working hours and patterns vary dramatically by occupation, traditional standard opening times do not accommodate much of the population. In addition, they also do not meet the needs of the growing night-time economy, which is of considerable value to the economy overall, as highlighted in our recent blog.

Other initiatives

It is doubtful, however, that the changes to the licensing laws are the only factor effecting changes in drinking culture. The Act also encouraged other initiatives that have helped to bring about more positive outcomes.

In response to the Act, the Civic Trust’s report Night vision: town centres for all, prompted a number of innovations including a new Civic Trust NightVision design award, a series of practical pilot projects and ideas. This ultimately led to the Purple Flag accreditation scheme, a voluntary scheme to raise the standard of night-time town and city centres, providing accreditation to those places that are managing their night time experience well.

Various other initiatives include: Best Bar None, Pubwatch and Community Alcohol Partnerships. Since Doncaster introduced the Best Bar None scheme in 2006, violent crime has fallen by over 40% in the town centre in the evening.

It would be fair to say that the provisions of the Act and the way they have interacted with other initiatives appear to have had a positive result and not ‘the ghastly consequences’ previously predicted.

As Christopher Snowdon, author of the IEA report, commented:

“The doom-mongers were wrong…The biggest consequence of relaxing licensing laws has been that the public are now better able to enjoy a drink at the time and location of their choice.”


Local authorities have responsibility for over 50 licensing and registration functions. Idox is a market-leading provider of licensing and regulatory services solutions which offer councils an efficient way for monitoring and enforcement.

By streamlining business processes and workflow, the solutions also allow for effective shared services and stakeholder engagement via the online digital service, Public Access for Licensing. 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on health and social issues – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Crime reduction through regulations (violent disorder and licensed trade), IN Scottish Justice Matters, Vol 3 No 2 Jun 2015

Understanding the alcohol harm paradox in order to focus the development of interventions (2015, Alcohol Research UK)

Regional alcohol consumption and alcohol-related mortality in Great Britain: novel insights using retail sales data, IN BMC Public Health, Vol 15 No 1 2015, pp1-9

Reducing the strength: guidance for councils considering setting up a scheme (tackling street drinking) (2015) Local Government Association

Alcohol interventions, alcohol policy and intimate partner violence: a systematic review, IN BMC Public Health, Vol 14 No 881 2014

Place-based approaches to service delivery

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Manchester Town Hall: (Photograph, James Carson)

By Alan Gillies

A recent enquirer to our popular Ask a Researcher service sought our help to identify the available research on the concept of place-based or whole-place working.

Place-based approaches have been promoted through, for example, the previous UK government’s whole place community budgets. And in the Scottish context, the 2011 Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services recommended a place-based, or ‘total place’ approach in order to improve local services and break down institutional silos.

In keeping with its focus on localism, the UK government also piloted a neighbourhood-level version – ‘complementary and integral to the concept of Whole Place community budgets’ – and in April 2014 granted an extra £4.3m of investment to ensuring the model reached 100 new local areas through the Our Place programme.

Principles of place-based or whole-place working

The principles underpinning this model of collaborative place leadership have been identified by the Local Government Association as:

  • building services around people and communities;
  • removing barriers to better outcomes and reduced costs through integrated working across agencies;
  • involving the business and voluntary sectors as equal partners;
  • collaborating to put together a workable whole public sector approach, joint responsibility and shared leadership;
  • local innovation and co-design with central government departments;
  • local delivery and investment mechanisms tailored to local needs and circumstances.

Benefits

The financial savings of such an approach could be significant. In January 2013, a report by Ernst & Young estimated that community budgets in England could deliver a net benefit of between £9.4 and £20.6bn over five years.

In looking at the costs and benefits of the whole place pilots in England in 2013, the NAO warned however that previous attempts such as local-area agreements, multi-area agreements and Total Place “did not lead to widespread or fundamental changes in local public services, or in the relationship between central and local government”.

But as financial pressure on public finances increased, there was even greater incentive than before to assess whether integrated whole-place approaches could help deliver services within increasingly tight budgets. A major driver of the process was therefore to maintain services while making savings.

The potential for place-based or whole-place policies to deliver financial savings does seem to be backed by the available evidence.

However, Localis, as recently as March 2015, has suggested that there is a sense across local government that Whitehall is unwilling to devolve the powers and funds necessary to let whole-place community budgets become a truly successful alternative means of delivering public services. The community budget pilots themselves ‘consistently pointed out that to deliver change on the scale they envisage there has to be change not only at a local level but also in Whitehall.’ (Ernst & Young, 2013)

Current government policy

The current government’s policy of devolution deals with certain areas has been seen as a way of realising the potential of place-based working. The Core Cities Group has called on the government to go further though. It wants the government to undertake a ‘place-based’ comprehensive spending review, looking at the total public resources deployed across a city or city region. It argues that without a similar place-based approach “within Whitehall, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay”, to join up the way different departments work with local agencies and cities, “we will not see the changes people want, need and deserve, in their lives and their cities”.

Local government lessons

In an interesting exercise, the New Local Government Network brought together local government chief executives to explore how place-based, integrated public services could deliver budget reductions and better outcomes for people in a notional ‘Newtown’.

The main learning points identified it its 2014 report were:

  • Working towards outcomes for place requires a different way of thinking and is an incredibly hard thing to do, particularly in relation to prevention, commissioning for outcomes and joining together what different sections of the public sector are doing to deliver outcomes for place.
  • Groups found it tough to move beyond current services and ways of working to develop new approaches to deliver outcomes. Thinking tended to involve ‘less of the same’ or different delivery bodies, rather than whole-scale public service reform.
  • There are a huge number of choices that need to be made and a vast range of stakeholder interactions required, yet few localities have the capacity available to complete this unaided.
  • Few areas have the practical experience to embed customer journey mapping into place based design principles. Perhaps worryingly, the report noted that groups found it difficult to put citizens at the centre of their plans for reform.
  • Despite having ‘red-lines’ of was not possible to change as part of the exercise (e.g. taxation), the groups went outside of these to ask government for additional powers, which suggests that in order to radically change public service in localities, central government reform maybe necessary.

These findings point to some of the challenges that local areas will need to overcome if they want to embrace a place-based approach.


Among the services offered by the Idox Knowledge Exchange, one of the most popular is our Ask a Researcher service.

In the past few months we’ve answered enquiries ranging from older people’s employment to young people’s housing; from rural inequalities to smart cities; and from early intervention to dispute resolution.

The Ask a Researcher service is available on a pay-per-search basis, or access can be included as part of an Information Service subscription. For more information, please contact us.

Involving young people in local political systems and decision-making

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Image from Flickr user UK Parliament via Creative Commons

Our latest briefing focuses on the involvement of young people in political processes and decision-making. You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange publications page.

While the media was focused on young people’s participation in politics at the national level during the recent General Election campaign, in this briefing we take a step back and look at the involvement of young people in local political processes and decision-making.

Research by the IPPR in 2013 found that alongside those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, young people are the group least likely to vote at elections. At the local level, research by the National Centre for Social Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that young voters are even less likely to turn out for local (and European) elections.

Our briefing highlights a range of reasons suggested by existing evidence as to why young people have low levels of engagement with political systems and decision-making. These include:

  • A lack of trust in politicians and their parties.
  • A focus on policies that do not directly impact on their lives.
  • Today’s generation of young people do not see voting as a civic duty.

Also highlighted are the reasons why it is so important that more is done to encourage young people to engage with political and decision-making processes. These range from legal factors (children and young people have the legal right to have a say in all matters that affect them, according to Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) to examples of positive contributions that children and young people have made in the shaping of local services.

The briefing includes advice on how organisations including councils can help to encourage and facilitate young people to become more involved in formal decision-making processes. This includes tips on practical considerations (e.g. venues, timing of meetings), safeguarding issues and how best to communicate with young people.

A number of examples of good practice are identified, including Dorset County Council’s Youth Inspectors scheme. Established in 2009, the project aims to enable young people to learn about and influence local services in their area.


 

The Knowledge Exchange specialises in public and social policy. To gain an insight into the commentary it offers, please explore our publications page on the Knowledge Exchange website.

To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.