This morning on the radio, I heard about a pilot governmental scheme called Total Place. The report focused on one of 13 pilot areas, in Leicestershire, where £5 million is being spent on getting a huge array of agencies – health, policing, local county and city councils, quangos and regional bodies – together to assess the funding flowing into, and the work being done, in the Leicestershire area and investigate how the different agencies could better coordinate their work.

In many ways this sounds like a good thing – a logical extension of the Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) approach to local government which has been embedding itself over the last few years. LSPs, in my understanding (feel free to correct me by leaving a comment!) are boards which bring together local ‘service providers’, including the Council, Primary Care Trust, Police, representatives of the business and voluntary sectors and others, to coordinate service delivery and, increasingly, public consultation and engagement in a particular area. Generally speaking, few would disagree that coordination is a good thing. However – and please bear in mind my relative lack of knowledge of these structures – two questions remain for me.

Firstly, why do we have such a proliferation of agencies in the first place? Historically, as I understand it, this can be identified as a hangover from the Thatcher era – and even from the Labour governments before her – during which considerable power was removed from local authorities. At the time, Militant elements of the Labour party were causing the Conservative government considerable trouble in areas such as Liverpool. The removal of power from councils has been argued, in this context, to have been a purely political move that ran completely counter to the supposed Conservative ideology of decentralisation and reducing the reach of the state. In his book Thatcher and Sons, Simon Jenkins covers these years, going on to argue that New Labour has in many areas reinforced and built on this trend, rather than scaling it back. Entities such as the regional Government Offices, Regional Development Agencies and others have been established or retained, with large budgets, a remit that is not well-known to the public and few checks and balances, either from elected authorities or from the media.

Secondly, and relatedly, the transfer of power to quangos (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations) and central and regional government bodies has unarguably reduced democratic control over service provision. Boards of such bodies tend to be appointed, rather than elected. Whether they publish minutes or not, most meetings of coordinating, strategic or grant-giving bodies above the local authority level take place behind closed doors as far as most citizens are concerned. Certainly, people should take the time to find out about the shifting democratic landscape. But they’re hardly aided in this by the increasingly confusing blurring of lines between the political and the managerial. To take a crucial example, where does this leave someone wanting to get involved in local decision-making? Perhaps, if they could get past the barriers discussed here, they could stand for council, amidst increasing confusion about how much influence this carries. Who has power, the councillors or the Chief Executive? Who has power, the council (and, in many places in England, it is necessary to add ‘Which council?’) or another agency? Who has power, all councillors or just dominant groups of councillors? What could be decided above councillors’ heads by unelected managers of public service organisations? Where is the money coming from for initiatives? Who is worthy of praise and who of blame? It’s enough to put anyone off trying to help shape their local community.

As is continually pointed out by such well-motivated, erudite intellectual beacons as the Taxpayers’ Alliance, all this confusion is not only undemocratic, but wastes money. A good move on both counts, it would seem, would be to map out what’s actually going on, make this knowledge public, and then try to coordinate activities more effectively. That’s what Total Place is trying to do – but if it doesn’t solve the problems above, ‘Total Place’ will be a misnomer. Through its devolved government, though it has its own problems, London is on its way to becoming a ‘Total Place’ – with its own ethos, pride, identity and autonomy. Will the Total Place initiative help deliver that?

Things have been done this way for so long that they have come to acquire an illusory logic of their own. Low expectations have been entrenched and any coordination of efforts is heralded with fulsome praise. But an analogy may help illustrate the lack of logic. Say you took the HR, Accounts and operational arms of a business and made them into three different organisations. If asked whether those different organisations should have meetings to coordinate their work, rather than not doing so, any sensible person would opt for the former. But there’d still be a problem. There would still be barriers between people trying to do different parts of the same job. And by adding to the burden of coordination and strategy in this way, the organisations involved tend to become more top-heavy and move ever-closer to the paper-pushing, politically correct stereotypes of the New Labour public sector.

Don’t worry though – I’m not about to go all pro-privatisation on you. My biggest concern is the fact that customers and workers have no more say in the organisation than they did previously, and that this is glossed over by the rhetoric of ‘stakeholders’ and ‘partnership working’.

So: what is the solution? In most other countries they have a much clearer division of labour between the state at local, regional and national (and, with the steadily creeping power of the EU, international) levels. Maybe that would help us. Certainly, the Tories’ proposed cull of quangos seems unlikely to provide the solution, for three reasons. Under Thatcher and Major, the Tories created a huge number of arms-length bodies. Labour proposed a similar cull of such bodies when they entered office, and this has failed to materialise. (See this New Statesman article.) Finally, the plotting of cuts, mergers and shakeups gets us no further towards a new constitutional settlement that gives power to the people of this country.

In today’s domestic news, the talk is all of cuts, and the Total Place objectives are no exception. The summary here speaks of ‘service transformations that can improve the experience of local residents and deliver better value’ and the need to ‘deliver early efficiencies to validate the work’. This is as it should be – we’re talking about taxpayers’ money here. But as well as saving money, why not be bold? Let’s take stock of history, prioritise democracy, and stop tinkering around the edges.

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