Local authorities can use existing tools more effectively to tackle poverty

At a time of austerity, can local authorities do more to tackle poverty with their existing processes, budgets and services?

At a time of austerity, can local leaders do more to tackle poverty with their existing processes, budgets and services? Matthew Jackson looks at the options.

Our places and communities are facing unprecedented challenges. As the government strives for economic growth and job creation, there are continuing trends towards marginalisation, inequality and poverty among many in society. The experience of poverty is no longer limited to unemployed people but increasingly affecting those in work.

The policy approach to poverty has also changed. Gone is the emphasis on geography, targeted funding and national indicators. Instead there is a far greater focus on individually-targeted services.

New research for JRF by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) highlights a variety of existing ways that local authorities can tackle poverty. In addressing the problems of poverty, the study is interested both in approaches that target individuals and those that target places.

The report shows that these locally-based mechanisms already exist, and they include community budgets, co-production, and public procurement. The problem is that for a range of reasons these mechanisms are not fulfilling their full potential. The study has set out to illustrate – with many practical examples – the role that these mechanisms can play in tackling and alleviating poverty. It identifies that:

  • community budgets can be used to bring together agencies to deliver services in a more efficient and effective way for vulnerable communities. In Keighley, for example, some control over resources has enabled communities to take control over local decisions;
  • co-production – a way of engaging people through collaborative services – can be used to increase an individual’s involvement in their communities. Co-production is based around reciprocity as feeling valued in the design of services can play an important role in raising self-esteem;
  • public procurement – the process used by public bodies to purchase goods and services – can be used to create jobs and other economic and social benefits for communities. When local authority procurement and economic development teams work together, public procurement has been used to develop the capability of local businesses, and the voluntary and community sector, to bid for contract opportunities.

While identifying a range of roles for ‘place-based mechanisms' in addressing poverty, the study also uncovered constraints that significantly limit current practice at a local level:

  • Few places have joined-up strategy or commitment to addressing poverty.
  • Community budget approaches appear to place greater emphasis on efficiencies and savings than delivering more effective services.
  • Co-production is taking place on individual service contracts as opposed to across all relevant commissioning activities.

The mechanisms mentioned in the report have real potential to address problems of poverty at a local level. The problem is that as things stand, their position in relation to mainstream local authority policies remains too marginal. Local leaders must bring these methods to the forefront of governance, service design, procurement, and service delivery at a local level, effectively making them part of the ‘corporate brain’ of local authorities and other stakeholders.