Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Question 59-79)




  59. Good afternoon. For the purpose of our record, could you introduce yourselves?
  (Mr Webster) I am Andrew Webster of the Audit Commission and I have my colleagues Scott Dickinson and Katie Smith with me.

  60. Would you like to make an introductory statement or are you happy to go straight to questions?
  (Mr Webster) We are very happy to go straight to questions.

Mr Clelland

  61. We have just heard from our last witnesses that a minority of ABIs actually achieve lasting and significant improvements in their areas. That seems rather to reflect the less than ringing endorsement of your evidence. Do you think there is a future for government sponsored ABIs?
  (Mr Webster) We were clear that there are always going to be some circumstances in which ABIs are the right thing to do, particularly where there is a very substantial problem which will be beyond the resources of any local agency. We cite some examples around major decontamination costs for example, or where there is a time-limited problem which requires some exceptional action which would be too much. We also endorse the remarks that clearly the capabilities of different local agencies vary very significantly and therefore some regime which supports people to do better so they are more capable of taking local action themselves will be important. Equally we were very clear that unless there is a very clear focus by the initiative on what matters in the locality, any amount of satisfying central government will not be successful. We see a future but one in which the balance is different and in which there is less focus on the intervention and more on the local capacity.

  62. Would you go so far as to be able to identify which kinds of ABIs you think have a future and which ones should be abandoned?
  (Mr Webster) I identified in my last answer some criteria which you might use. I would hesitate to start going through schemes and saying this sort of scheme works, this sort of scheme does not work, because it is a much more complex matrix of the problem which was presenting, the approaches which were taken to it, the history which existed before, the likelihood of success. We know from our other work that predicting success in any kind of government change programme is incredibly difficult to do and we never seem to find any correlation with anything. It requires quite sophisticated judgement.
  (Mr Dickinson) The recent innovations following the social exclusion unit's work did highlight where Area Based Initiatives should be treated as important, where estate-based activity in particular needed to be improved. We can actually say what criteria are required. Initiatives which try to get into an area, only deal with physical developments, do not look at wider social issues and the delivery of public services tends not to produce sustainable improvements for the people who live there. So we can produce criteria, but it is difficult to say that one will not work, that one will. That is all we hope we can move towards.


  63. You said that it is important that local authorities and others try to ensure that the mainstream funding gets diverted to support the areas which are receiving money from the special initiatives, but you also say that the plethora of new initiatives coming out means that the various bodies are chasing their tails trying to cope with initiatives and are not really devoting the time to their mainstream funding and trying to make sure that is skewed in an appropriate way. Is this a real worry? Are you having discussions with government about how you can sort it out?
  (Mr Webster) Yes, it is a real worry. A much more general problem than simply to do with regeneration initiatives is that a large proportion of local government is busy satisfying the criteria of one central initiative or another and probably a large part of the public sector. We found in our work and in the report we have presented to you that focusing on what will make the difference in this locality and then delivering that through a variety of means is the more likely route to success. Our hope is that people will develop their capability and confidence to have a much more coherent local vision of what they are trying to achieve, to use their own resources to do it and to draw in government and other resources to match that rather than what many perceive to be going on the other way round which is that local resources get skewed by chasing a particularly attractive source of funding which the government or European Union have introduced more recently. We see great advantage in more coherence and more local coherence, but we see very variable capacity to do that. We welcomed the initiatives in central government to rationalise the relationships with local authorities and with other bodies and to co-ordinate and reduce the number of initiatives, but if you ask many of those bodies, as I am sure you will go on to do, they will still be looking for more.

  64. I shall ask you as you are before us now. Do you think there should be further reductions and if so what?
  (Mr Webster) We do think that there should be further rationalisations and we were pointing in that direction. It is not that the policy and programmes are going in the wrong direction or that the criteria are wrong, all those things are right. It is the credibility which needs to be gained that it will actually be delivered and will make a difference. We observe many different departments of government very attached to their own ability to intervene in particular localities and particular parts of the initiatives and a lack of confidence in local government that that is going to stop and that greater coherence will be brought to those things. So we would be reflecting back the need for that and for the measures which have been put in place through the regional co-ordination unit and through the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to be seen to work and then to move on to look at other ways in which that could be expended.
  (Ms Smith) One of the things we have done is look at what the regional co-ordination unit has put forward. We have liked a number of the things in the review of the ABIs. It does seem to us to make some progress in terms of trying to reduce the burden on local practitioners which we hear a lot about in terms of administrative costs and the complex system they have to negotiate in implementing these ABIs. That has been quite helpful. Also the fact that it actually does highlight a number of practical tasks for individual departments and individual units to do in order to better rationalise this very fragmented set of initiatives is quite helpful also. What is not clear is whether or not the regional co-ordination unit has any clout, whether it can actually hold other government departments to task. The tendency does tend to be to announce new initiatives. There is a great tendency to announce something new to sort a problem out. Whether the regional co-ordination unit's protocol will have any clout is not clear. It is there and it is definitely progress, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will be able to reduce the number.

Alistair Burt

  65. Your memorandum said very little about government sponsored place based schemes, government sponsorship for the large scale place based regeneration schemes. Does this mean that you do not really see a future for them?
  (Mr Webster) No, it does not mean that we do not see any future for them. I partly answered that in my earlier answer to Mr Clelland, where we see circumstances in which place based schemes are the right things to do. Earlier witnesses have said that it is much more complex than that, people's affiliations work at a variety of different levels and people do move, people want to move, it is a positive thing. It is where there is a strong place or time dimension to something that we see there being real value in having those kinds of initiatives. Where something is within the purview of everyday management and leadership of everyday services, then greater capacity building and mainstreaming would be a much more desirable way of tackling those kinds of issues. We are not saying we do not see a place for them, we are saying we see a much more focused and limited role for them.

  66. We have spoken once or twice about Hulme and a number of colleagues have mentioned Hulme. Did you get a chance to look at Hulme and if so did you deduce why perhaps that has been a successful scheme?
  (Mr Dickinson) The key bit there is that Manchester as a city did not isolate Hulme as just one place and put everything there. They did try to see it in the context of the rest of the city. It is a location close to the city centre. Manchester suffers from extensive deprivation so any number of areas could have been chosen as a focus and what they have tried to do is put it in a strategic context. Although a lot of the work in Hulme was ground breaking and has been seen to be successful and has changed the nature of the area, it was never seen in isolation from the rest of what was going on in the city. That is one of the key things which we find: you have to make the connections both to other public service provision and wider economic development and that is what they made sure they did.

  67. It coincided with the UDC and the success in the city centre and a general buzz about Manchester and therefore your sense is that it picked up on that and was partly successful because of what was happening in the city as a whole.
  (Mr Dickinson) Yes. Although it was a very focused approach and still is for East Manchester, it has always made the connections back out to other things which were going on in the city. That is essential if things are not going to be seen as isolated developments which then are very difficult to sustain.

Andrew Bennett

  68. Has anyone actually evaluated Hulme or is it a nicely constructed myth? I would suspect that probably 10 per cent of the original population is still in Hulme. It may be that for them that was success, but the other 90 per cent who were displaced will not be too happy. I would think most of the drug dealers moved into Mosside; not particularly good for Mosside. Has it been evaluated?
  (Mr Dickinson) We have not done that sort of evaluation. There are always issues of displacement; it cropped up with an earlier witness. There are always those issues, but when Manchester have gone about these things they have tried to see things with a strategic view. They have not just not assumed that things will not get displaced. I have not seen work which follows up where the people who used to live there have actually gone, but there are issues about whether people want to stay in some of these areas as well, so developments are about helping people and helping places. It is not seen in isolation in Manchester, so they have tried to deal with the displacement effects well and that has been inter-agency with the police as well as the local authority.
  (Mr Webster) I was recently in Manchester for another purpose though looking at their regeneration and they were very clear that they had learned a lot about how to do it in Hulme. They would not necessarily replicate everything they did there in other parts of the city; in fact they would not. There were things about community engagement, the links between physical and social regeneration which they have done differently in East Manchester and plan to do differently in North Manchester. There is a very important point to be made there, that even if Hulme were the model, it might only be the model for Hulme. There may well be other things which would work in other places where we would see that capacity in the local agencies and in particular the lead local agency, which in that case is the city council, to look at what did and did not work. To adapt, to change, to modify and then apply differently in other sectors in a coherent way has been probably more important than what initiative it was done under or what particularly happened in that locality.

Mr Clelland

  69. One of the features of ABIs is that it is hoped, in fact intended, that they should lever in additional investment from the public and private sectors. Have you been able to evaluate to what extent they are successful in doing that and what levels of investment have been achieved?
  (Mr Webster) Across the totality of ABIs, no, we have not. We cannot say this much went in and they brought in this much in total. We have inspected quite a lot of councils' economic development and local regeneration strategies. We do find examples of striking success. One I would particularly draw your attention to is in Easington which attracted something of the order of £400 million in additional investment. It clearly is possible to do it and whatever people did in Easington may well be replicatable in a slightly different way in different places. I think that what we can do is point to isolated examples of success and then hope that other people will learn from that or particular cases where that had not happened, which we would also do in places where people were found to be performing less well. In terms of taking a view across the entire country, we have not done that. In fact even if we had been everywhere and you took all our reports and added them up, you would still have problems in that they were looking at different times and different regimes and so on. Our answer is that it is possible but not universal.
  (Mr Dickinson) Although we do not have a universal view of this there is a lot of anecdotal information which points to the other view which is that sometimes when an area gets an Area Based Initiative mainstream resources go out because people say, "They're sorted". There are issues about not only not attracting extra but losing some of the mainstream services and spend you would have had because of the ABI.

  70. You have not been able to do any evaluation as to how outcomes are affected by additional investment or lack of it.
  (Mr Webster) In some places we can point to evidence.

  71. Can you give examples.
  (Mr Webster) Not that we have collected but evidence which other people have supplied to us that outcomes have been improved. I guess our examples of places which have been particularly successful would be Easington and another one would be Hartlepool.

  72. What about places which have not been successful, which have not succeeded in bringing in additional investment? Have you been able to assess how that has affected the outcomes of the schemes, perhaps detrimentally?
  (Mr Webster) What we can say is that the advantages one might hope would have come from those have not materialised. We do have to say that causality is not always that easy to establish here. Is the place poor because the services are poor or are the services poor because the place is poor? We have not been able to establish a direct line of cause between those two things. Regional factors can be tremendously powerful and national factors can be tremendously powerful. There is nothing any council can do to account for any major national or international economic change. A degree of anticipation of those things might better inform what choices are made but it may well be that having made those choices the deliverability was never there. We could compare and contrast examples with our material but we have not done it.

Andrew Bennett

  73. Can we take it the other way round? What are the recipes for success? Are there three or four things which really are essential? Is it bringing in extra funding? Is it the capacity of the local authority? What are the key things which make some of these clearly successful and some not?
  (Mr Dickinson) There are some basic factors which we could try to highlight. One of them inevitably is the capacity of the local authority and other key partners such as the police and primary care trusts to know what they want for their area, know what they want for the services and be able to use the money sensibly as opposed to simply going for targets which have been handed down. People are not consciously analysing the needs of their area. They do not generally use the money well. We also think that working with local businesses and local communities so that they own the issues and can follow through once the grants have stopped is the crucial factor in making sure the success is there. We might even have examples of where local labour has been used in construction but if nothing is planned for what happens, it is still not sustainable. That is another key factor in making sure things are successful. I always get concerned when people make attracting extra resources their target for success. The grant regime sort of requires it so they have to pull down extra resources somehow. I am more concerned with what happens afterwards in terms of the quality of jobs or the quantity of the services. We would look for people looking at those outcomes rather than just whether they got extra money spent in their area.

  74. That is quite helpful. The question then is: should we be spending money in places where none of those factors applies?
  (Mr Dickinson) There the evidence is that you need capacity building in the first instance and that is where a differentiated approach may be needed for greater flexibility in setting those targets. Some areas have a capacity to do that; others would not necessarily have the capacity and that needs to be built in, something which can be deliverable in a sustainable way.

  75. Should that capacity be the responsibility of the local authority to build or do you have to build it within the local authority?
  (Mr Dickinson) That is a case by case basis. It might be the local authority which needs the capacity built. It might be local businesses. It might be local communities. We cannot really make a general comment there. It is a case by case basis.

Alistair Burt

  76. Some of those who have submitted evidence to us have been particularly critical about the number of single issue initiatives which come along and cloud the rest of the major initiatives which may be taking place. Tom Russell from Manchester wrote and said, "One important issue emerging from area regeneration where progress in policy terms at a national level has been slow or inconsistent concerns the integration of initiatives. The growth in the range of single issue area initiatives, all with their own staffing, management structures, objectives, targets, outputs, accountabilities etc, has greatly added to the complexity of area regeneration in recent years". He goes on to say that in his area there are ". . . three SRB initiatives, New Deal for Communities, Education and Sports Action Zones, Sure Start, On Track etc". We had a similar representation from the Diocese of Birmingham. Should Ministers receive a sharp rap over the knuckles and just stop doing some of these things because they mess up other people's work?
  (Mr Webster) We said in our earlier answer that we welcome the steps which have been taken to try to rationalise this and we think it should go further. It is not our place to say whether that is a rap over the knuckles.

Andrew Bennett

  77. It is a tactful one.
  (Mr Webster) It clearly is the case that this plethora of initiatives can sow confusion; it does not necessarily do so, but it can. It is difficult, if you are trying to look at a whole area, to establish the real priorities in terms of responding to government initiatives. It is difficult enough to look at the real priorities locally, but when you try to marry them up to a whole series of changing national initiatives, that can be difficult. There are some people amongst the more able and successful places who do manage to do this. So there are local partnerships which have integrated all of this into a very successful range of Area Based Initiatives. The question is: is that something we could expect everybody to do?

Alistair Burt

  78. Exactly and can you extract particular key factors which make them successful and spread them to other areas?
  (Mr Webster) We have highlighted some of those. They look first at their local things, they have capacity, they work well in partnership, they are focused, they are very ambitious. They have many things which drive them through this tangle to something which is coherent for them, but there are many other places where for one reason or another that does not exist and in those cases a wide range of single issue initiatives either becomes a co-ordination problem or an excuse. We would not wish either of those things to be the case. There is definitely an argument for giving greater attention to the capacity of people to knit these things together and for a more careful scrutiny of single issue initiatives. There is evidence that is happening because, for example, health action zones are now being integrated into these things. There are other opportunities to rationalise things. This is not the case of us sitting here saying we need to clear all this out of the way and have a year zero on initiatives. We are not saying that at all. What we are saying is that the recognition which has been given to that problem needs to be consolidated and seen through and the things which make people well able to deal with it need to be encouraged and promoted so that there are better prospects from both sides.

  79. Do you think enough emphasis is given to training some of the key people involved in co-ordinating these local initiatives so that they know what they are doing and when these initiatives arrive they are given the benefit of what has been happening in other places? Instead of just concentrating on the initiative itself, some time and effort should be spent with some of the senior individuals who will see these things through, whether they are community based individuals or officials from various agencies.
  (Mr Webster) Are you talking about in the locality?

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