Innovate or pay more

innovationAt last Thursday’s Budget Debate I ‘suffered’ the full fury of the Liberal’s Cllr. Page, who decided this year, slightly ‘left field’ to launch at me about the money spent on Suffolk Circle.

It is interesting that Cllr. Page failed to comment that one of the programmes in the budget delivering the biggest savings is the Supporting Lives and Connecting Communities, this year aiming to save the council £6 million. A programme developed and instigated when I was Cabinet Member for Adult and Communities Services which has 3 or 4 core papers as the basis on which I managed to convince my cabinet colleagues that we should reshape the way in which we deliver services in our communities. One of these documents is the original work done by Participle the organisation behind the circle movement. It researched, over the course of a year, how Suffolk’s communities are connected, and why the differences in capacity between similar places exist and if the Circle could be a part of the way forward in Suffolk. This extensive body of work is a document I still refer to today in my role for the Local Government Association sitting as a member on the national TLAP Board and on TLAP’s Building Community Capacity (BCC) Framework programme board, from my point of view, its work is very much it is informed by the original Participle paper and to some extent our Suffolk experience of why the Circle movement did not work.

Another thing that so infuriated the Liberals at the time was the notion of providing start-up funding to a Circle model which was primarily not about providing services to those who can’t afford anything themselves but about addressing loneliness and connections in communities by individuals, in the social economic group just above those that qualify, who will pay for services themselves in order to stop them tipping into services. Interestingly this notion of councils having responsibility to inform and market shape not just for those who qualify is now about to become an actual duty under the Care Act when it comes into operation in April this year. Prevention and addressing the causes that make people tip into expensive services is very much the new agenda.

Over the course of 3 years we spent about £680,000 on funding the Suffolk Circle as a start-up, the organisation behind the circle movement is a not for profit social enterprise and the circles staff were drawn from the Suffolk voluntary sector, it hit its membership targets but did not exceed them and at the end of the three year start-up period the Suffolk Circle and Participle decided that they could not sustain the organisation and all the existing members were transferred to other voluntary sector organisations in Suffolk who took over aspects of its activity, programmes that are still running today. Since then the Southwark Circle has also closed yet others are still in existence. Much has been written about the circle approach and community involvement indeed the role of councils and other voluntary organisations. The TLAP BCC Framework, which I led a workshop on at the Annual TLAP conference last year on, attempts to build on all the different learning out there.

In terms of risk I suppose you are always going to have the Cllr. Pages’ of this world who just want to throw mud and not understand the detail but it important that Council’s innovate and work on how to lead the way to delivery services in an environment of less funding. In the period that the circle start-up was funded the Council spent over £650 million on Adult and Community Services and so in this context the less that 0.001% of its spending on something that was expected to succeed but did not was a part of the mix of service delivery being trialled, but we must keep trying to find new ways of supporting our communities and help prevent people from needing services in the first place, this one did not success but that does not mean you stop.

When we Conservative took over in 2005 the structure of the council was a basket case, 9 years later literally thousands of staff have gone and the council delivers more service today than it did then. But you know what unless we try new ways of working I suppose the only recourse is to do what Cllr. Page’s party did the last time they had power and simply keep spending without innovating and then demand ever more of people’s hard earned money to pay for it.

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