Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11 Oct 2005 : Column 63WH—continued

11 Oct 2005 : Column 64WH

Local Strategic Partnerships

1.28 pm

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to consider this issue, which is important throughout the country, particularly given the development of local area agreements and the like. A local strategic partnership, or LSP, is basically a body that brings together the local authority, a number of statutory bodies, and the voluntary and community sector in the local authority area. That is a good idea; partnership working is definitely good. In Birmingham, for instance, the national exhibition centre was established through partnership working. Getting the bodies to work together is good. In Liverpool, there is a scheme called "INclude". It operates in the Liverpool 8 area and involves various people, including those from the housing association, the council and the police, working out of the same building. They have the same problems, so they work together to solve them.

However, there are some difficulties with the way that things are happening. Many people—too many, to a certain extent—have their fingers in the pie, so the pie tends to get a little overloaded. There is also a difficulty with checks and balances. Some schemes run the risk of mild corruption and conflicts of interest, as was seen with the new deal company in Radford and Hyson Green in 2003. There are many issues related to checks and balances, and the comparative role of, say, a chief executive and elected politicians. Politicians are accountable to the electors and are therefore interested in the wider picture, whereas people representing individual organisations might have a narrower perspective linked to that organisation. It is a challenge to try to bring that together.

One difficulty in that area is with targets. Everyone goes on about targets, and one must accept that we need a mechanism for measuring things. However, there is an obsessive approach to targets from Government offices for the regions and from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Let us consider the police. One target, particularly in many urban areas, which receive neighbourhood renewal funding and so on, is to reduce the gap between the people who do worst and best. The police in Birmingham, for instance, have done well in reducing car crime. They have reduced it by 10 per cent., but they have not closed the gap. The reason is that most car crime happens in car parks—as all the cars are concentrated in one place, there is more car crime. Unless the car park is shut down, the gap will not be closed. It is a mistake to beat the police around the head because they have not closed the gap.

Similarly, primary care trusts have a target of reducing the prevalence of smoking by 26 per cent. That is a good idea; I do not want to encourage anyone to smoke. I have never smoked; it is not a good thing to do. How do the PCTs know how many people are smoking? When a little boy goes around the back of the bike sheds to start smoking at the age of 13 or 14, does he first write to the trust to say, "I'm going to start smoking"? When we make our new year's resolutions, do we write to the trust to say, "We're going to stop smoking this year," and, having stopped smoking, to announce, "We've stopped smoking"? In reality, it is difficult to quantify certain information.
11 Oct 2005 : Column 65WH

There is another challenge. Someone who runs a project dealing with hard-to-reach youths who come in off the street out of gangs complained to me recently. It is a success to get such youths into a project, but that is not taken into account. It is unfair and unrealistic to beat people around the head because they have not managed the same objectives and targets as one might manage in a leafy suburb of the city. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister does not distinguish between targets that can be effected by agencies and other targets.

Unemployment is an important issue, but one cannot expect the local strategic partnership to be responsible for the global economy. If we are to have such targets, they must take into account the health, well-being and quality of life of the community, and the economy. Specific targets should relate to relevant agencies, and they should be part of their own operational plans and hence part of the LSP annual plan. It is unfair to blame the LSP for tornadoes or for companies going bust. The ways things are going the Government would blame the LSP if Martians invaded.

A further problem is that Government offices for the regions and the ODPM look for direct cause and effect between the spend of relatively small sums of money and major targets. Another difficulty is that the analysis of targets falls into arrears. We are battered around the head about the status of council housing, when the evidence shows that it is moving forward in Birmingham. I know that there is pressure from the Government to get rid of council housing and that therefore if the housing is owned by a registered social landlord it does not fall within the LSP figures and the LSP does not get battered around the head.

There is another problem with targets. There is no target for having public toilets. The pressure is on local authorities from the Government to close down public toilets. During the past five years, since the Audit Commission decided that it was not important whether areas had public toilets, we have seen something like a 20 per cent. drop in their number throughout the country. The hardest aspect of a project is that some will have an effect on crime and liveability. The effect is difficult to quantify, such that it ticks the boxes when the project goes back to the ODPM.

The critical path analysis is another problem. It takes a certain amount of time for things to happen. Home-start, which is a perfect scheme in my constituency, supporting families with young children, is in difficulties because it does not know what is happening to its funding next year. No decisions have been taken, because everyone is interfering.

In Birmingham we operate a scheme in which a lot of funding is devolved to the wards. Our wards are big: they have about 25,000 people in them, including the kiddies. We also involve the local community. I am sure that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe) is aware that we have ward advisory boards. The police and the primary care trust also consider things. However, the pressure from the Government is to stop that, to move away from it and to centralise. That would take away the local allocation of schemes.
11 Oct 2005 : Column 66WH

At the same time, the Government report, "Making it Happen in Neighbourhoods: The National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal Four Years On", which came out in January and which has the product code 04NRU02643, should people want to find it, states:

We are doing that in Birmingham, but we are getting pressure to change, and to reduce the proportion of the spend that goes through the ward and district structure and to centralise more of it.

What happens nationally with funding and the generation of various non-jobs and odd schemes? In 2004, Manchester funded a thing called CowParade, which was part-funded by neighbourhood renewal funding. Let us not be critical about statues of cows dotted around a city for about a month. The project raised some money for charity and so on, but is that really the sort of thing that should have funding from neighbourhood renewal funding, given all the constraints, floor targets and everything else? I do not mind Manchester doing that. It was Manchester's decision—there is no problem—but it is unfair to bat the city of Birmingham around the head for doing what the Government recommend in their reports, and for civil servants to tell the city to do something else.

For instance, when I became chairman of the local strategic partnership in 2004, I sat down with the regional director of the Government office for the west midlands, and we identified a few problems and worked out a solution that involved setting up a project board, or sub-committee, of the strategic partnership. But the Government said, "No, you can't do that. You must have consultants." I know that the Government have to spend a lot of money on consultants; otherwise, they will not hit their target of about 1p on income tax for consultants. They must use consultants whenever possible. Therefore, we had to have a neighbourhood renewal adviser. A nice bloke came along, talked to everybody, looked at the issues and suggested that we do what we had intended to do in the first instance. A year later, after Government involvement delayed us from doing things, we have finally done them.

In the meantime, we have had a problem getting responses from the Government. We send e-mails but do not get a response—it is very difficult. In essence, Government involvement in the process prevents partnership working. It drives the agenda of the local
11 Oct 2005 : Column 67WH
strategic partnership down narrow routes, making it difficult to get out of the box and focus on generating local partnership working.

There are tensions between the Government-funded community empowerment network and Birmingham residents associations, and between systems of neighbourhood management and devolved government, which we have been establishing in the city. It is definitely a good idea to use commissioning rather than a bidding system. That is entirely valid, but there is always something nagging away in the background. It is a bit like a gangster coming around to one's shop and saying, "Oh, those are nice windows. Don't you want some insurance?" The civil servants say, "We haven't signed the money off yet. If you don't do this, you might not get your money."

It is very simple, really. We need some straightforward things from the Government: first, less interference, and, secondly, an understanding of the importance of timeliness. Birmingham is a big city, and changes cause chaos all over the place unless people are given time to adjust. Thirdly, we need straight answers to straight questions. The Government should tell us if something is or is not acceptable.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's attack on the Government, but I would like to put a question to him. He acknowledged that he is the chairman of the strategic partnership, which recently had a poor rating from the independent reviewer. As MP for part of Birmingham, a local councillor and self-proclaimed candidate for love rat of the year, does he not think that he may already have too much on his plate? If, as intended, some of that stuff was left to local people rather than to the hon. Gentleman, with his desire to do all those jobs, we might get a better deal from the strategic partnership.

John Hemming : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful contribution.

The question is whether there is merit in Members of Parliament being involved in the process. I believe that there is. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) is chairman of the Hartlepool local strategic partnership. Another Labour MP is being interviewed on Friday for the post of chairman of his local strategic partnership, but it would be unfair to identify him and I do not have his permission to do so. It is sensible for the local authority executive to decide who should chair the local strategic partnership. If the Government were to say that they would take the money from me if I continued to chair it, I should fall on my sword tomorrow. It would not be a problem. Critically, it is a matter of getting better services for the city of Birmingham.

The Government should give us straight answers to straight questions, and they should do so in a timely manner. Frankly, if the private sector was run in the same way as the Government run the public sector, it would go bust.

1.40 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas) : May I say, Sir Nicholas, what a pleasure it is to respond to this debate under your chairmanship? This is the first time that I will have done so in my new role.
11 Oct 2005 : Column 68WH

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) on securing the debate; the subject is clearly important him, his constituents and the wider population of Birmingham. I shall attempt to answer his questions.

I shall start by putting the Government's policy on local strategic partnerships and local area agreements into context. The local strategic partnerships are playing an increasingly important role in providing leadership in their localities and in securing sustained improvements to the quality of local services. Evidence shows that they are making a positive difference to the delivery of services in many areas.

A key element of that new enhanced role is that LSPs are the engine room for developing local area agreements. The LAAs provide what the hon. Gentleman seeks; they allow greater flexibility for the delivery of local public services with greater devolution, and they give local authorities and their partners the ability to deliver. They also allow greater flexibility in the use of funding streams. Most of all, they ensure that the various organisations in health and education, the local authorities, the police, the private sector and, commonly, the voluntary and community sectors share the objectives. If the objective in an area is to reduce crime, how much better it will be to involve the youth services, the local education authority, the primary care trust and the police in achieving those aims.

If the hon. Gentleman is sceptical about my words, I shall pray in aid Sir John Egan, who emphasised the role of LSPs in his review "Skills for Sustainable Communities". The document stated that LSPs

The Government have a strategy for neighbourhood renewal. From 2001 to 2006, resources are being made available through the neighbourhood renewal fund—the NRF—for the delivery of LSPs in 88 of the most deprived local authority areas, which includes Birmingham. Indeed, as I shall show, Birmingham is the largest recipient of such funding.

The purpose of the NRF is to provide support to local authorities in England's most deprived districts to enable them, in co-operation with their LSPs, to improve services in their most deprived areas. I am sorry to introduce another acronym, Sir Nicholas, because I know your natural hostility to them, but let me explain the importance of super output areas—SOAs. We can now identify at sub-ward level the most deprived areas, so that we can target our efforts. Even in prosperous areas such as Cheshire, to pick one at random, there are, as you know, pockets of deprivation. We therefore want to target our funding, and SOAs allow us to do so.

Within NRF areas, there are floor targets. I think that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has confused what a floor target is. He shakes his head, but I have not given the explanation yet. I hope that he will bear with me until I do; if he then wants to disagree, he is free to do so. The achievement of Government floor targets is part of the purpose of the NRF. As he said, the local target is to narrow the gap between deprived areas and the rest of the country. The challenge is a big one: not only to improve the situation in the relevant areas, but to narrow the gap with more prosperous areas.
11 Oct 2005 : Column 69WH
Logically, there are two ways of doing that. The first is the Conservative approach, which is to make the richer areas poorer. That is one way of narrowing the gap. The problem with that approach was that the poorer areas became even poorer, so the gap remained.

Our approach is that all boats should rise with the tide, but the lower areas—the worse-off areas—should rise faster. We recognise that that is a challenge. Where I disagree with the hon. Gentleman is on his claim that the Government punish areas that do not meet their floor targets. In fact, the major criticism of the neighbourhood funding system is that it punishes successful areas, because the identification of an NRF area is based on its deprivation. As an area comes out of deprivation, in part because of the success of the neighbourhood renewal strategy, the funding that central Government make available is withdrawn. Because we are a benevolent Government, that withdrawal is on a transitional basis, but funding is nevertheless withdrawn. I was lobbied and am being lobbied intensively by Members of Parliament representing areas that have lost their neighbourhood renewal funding. I say to them that that is because those areas have succeeded.

John Hemming : Without going into the minutiae of the different floor targets, I want to raise this point. It was not made by the independent inspector, but the judgment has been that Birmingham has not done so well on worklessness, for instance, so the funds have not been finally signed off as yet.

Mr. Woolas : I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which I shall answer directly, but just to finish my point, far from bashing Birmingham around the head, as he described the situation, Birmingham's allocation for 2006–07 is £32.3 million. Many MPs would welcome such an allocation of resources. The proposed allocation for 2007–08 is £37.6 million. That is up from £22 million, and there is an additional resource of £4.8 million through the safer and stronger communities fund.

The hon. Gentleman says that those are only indicative announcements. They are indeed indicative, as is the revenue support grant announcement, which is made every November. It is indicative because it involves taxpayers' money; it is not my money or my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister's money. In return for taxpayers' money to address some of the inequalities, the Government reasonably ask that the LSPs provide evidence, under their devolved powers, to show that the money will be used to meet the floor targets.

I shall outline more details for the record and for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman who secured the debate. An LSP, which must be accredited by Ministers, must be in place in order for neighbourhood fund money to be received. The grant is paid directly to the local authority, which is the accountable body, for the expenditure, but the expenditure must be agreed by the LSP.

The LSPs in the neighbourhood areas were formally accredited in 2002 and 2003. Since then, the ODPM's neighbourhood renewal unit has replaced annual accreditation with a performance management approach, under which the LSPs self-assess their
11 Oct 2005 : Column 70WH
progress towards achieving delivery of the national floor targets and the local targets that they set. In other words, the Government have further freed up the regime by asking the LSP to assess its own performance against those targets.

Birmingham's self-assessment concurred with the Government's subsequent assessment that its rating was what is called amber-red, or in head teacher language, "could do better." That was Birmingham's self-assessment, and one with which we agreed.

John Hemming : The point that I made earlier was that worklessness is not entirely within the control of the LSP, although the LSP can work on it and aim to improve employment. The amber-red rating comes, in part, from council housing and worklessness. With that as a defined methodology, we are measuring something that the LSP cannot control.

Mr. Woolas : Again, the hon. Gentleman's intervention goes to the heart of the matter. He might have a point if the Government were using the financial leverage of the neighbourhood renewal fund, or indeed any other funding mechanism, to punish an area for not narrowing the gap on worklessness or not meeting the other floor targets, which I shall go through if I have time, in the way that the hon. Gentleman described.

As I have tried to explain, however, neighbourhood renewal funding is withdrawn when the targets are met. That is the point of the scheme. It is an incentive for the population and the local economy to succeed and to meet local health, education and crime targets, but it is not true to say that the Government punish areas that do not meet those targets. The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the nature of the targets that have been set and their purpose.

John Hemming : There is a misunderstanding about the detailed mechanism. The reality is that there is a different process because certain LSPs have been deemed amber-red. In fact, a different process is in operation for signing off the finance. I am concerned about measuring people against things that they cannot control.

Mr. Woolas : The hon. Gentleman says that the Government are measuring an LSP against things that it cannot control, but the Government are in fact measuring an area by its deprivation indices, and giving funds to local agencies that can influence, albeit not wholly, those targets. The announcement in July was an indicative announcement of neighbourhood renewal fund money and applies not only to Birmingham but across the piece.

Steve McCabe : Perhaps I was being unfair to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) when I suggested that he sought to cover his own failures by deflecting blame elsewhere. Given that we are debating the performance of the strategic partnership, is not there an argument for an independent investigation into how the resources have been used and how that procedure is working in Birmingham compared with other parts of the country?

Mr. Woolas : I would have thought that, as a public representative, I would be obliged to answer that
11 Oct 2005 : Column 71WH
question in the affirmative. It is public, taxpayers' money that is used. The Audit Commission has, and does, look at the performance of LSPs in the context of the fact that the local authority is the accountable body.

Let me tell my hon. Friend what the Audit Commission found in respect of LSPs in neighbourhood renewal funding areas. It said that they

If I may say so, all the evidence shows that the neighbourhood renewal strategy is delivering and is doing so because of the funding that has been made available and the partnerships that have been put together.

John Hemming : May I take this opportunity to agree with the Minister that the strategy is delivering, to a certain extent? One advantage that we have in Birmingham is that it is a sort of social science experiment, in which we do not do exactly the same thing across the whole city, and so it is possible to measure the exact results from the use of funding in certain areas.

However, I return to the point about different treatment. Although I accept the point that the finance will probably get signed off relatively quickly, there is a different categorisation for those LSPs which—in Birmingham's case through no fault of its own—end up in the amber-red category. They are treated differently in terms of the signing off of the finance from those who are amber-green or green. The point that I am making is that that categorisation is linked to something of which they are not directly in control.

Mr. Woolas : The hon. Gentleman seems to be complaining about the reality of the real world. In setting floor targets, no one is suggesting that the LSP or
11 Oct 2005 : Column 72WH
the local authority is responsible, or has within its powers the responsibility, for curing all the world's ills. However, I have a responsibility to the taxpayer to examine why improvements are made faster in some areas than in others. I do not want to say that improvements are not being made. In Birmingham, for example, levels of burglary fell by 16 per cent. between 2001 and 2003, compared with a 6 per cent. fall in England as a whole, and so the gap is narrowing. I do not suggest that that has happened entirely because of—

Steve McCabe : The chairman.

Mr. Woolas : Because of the chairmanship of the LSP or because of the neighbourhood renewal fund, but I believe that the evidence shows that there is a correlation, which is important.

The situation now is that the Government Office for the West Midlands assessed the Birmingham strategic partnership as amber-red overall, which confirmed, as I said, the partnership's own self-assessment.

I shall answer one specific question before my time runs out. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said that the chairmanship of the LSP is down to the local authority. The Government do not dictate the governance of LSPs; that is a matter for local decision making. I understand that in the case of Birmingham, there is a draft constitution that accepts that the local authority leader is the chair—I think that he is the deputy leader—

John Hemming : Deemed by the local authority.

Mr. Woolas : That is what I said. It is deemed by the local authority rather than the LSP. That is a matter for the local area; it is not for the Government to say. However, it is for the Government to act on behalf of the people who, through no fault of their own, were born into areas of deprivation. It is our responsibility to help them and to narrow the gap with the more prosperous areas in the country.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page