Following the release of the draft National Framework, Julian Pinhey looks at the pros and cons of Community Budgeting.

The government finally released the draft National Framework for England on 13 December.  It would be surprising if it shocked anyone within the sector.  The government have been saying for some time that they do not want to micro manage public services. The National Framework can be summed up in a sentence: 'continue what you are doing, just pay attention to your community and ensure they know about the decisions you make'.

If you work for the Department of Communities and Local Government you may be a bit more worried. What with Eric Pickles' view on the size of the public sector, how many people are needed to organise a few meetings between the government and fire and rescue authorities (FRAs)? Not only that, the Cabinet Office seems to have the only other real role within the Framework through the National Risk Assessment process and National Resilience Planning Assumptions work.

A sigh of relief around the country? If you are a successful FRA, you carry on as before - in fact, if you are not, as long as you produce an annual assurance document, the only time anyone will come knocking is if you are really up the creek.

In truth, the National Framework was never the delivery mechanism for the serious changes to the Fire and Rescue Service that will be coming. It looks like what it is; a document that someone, somewhere, realised was statutorily necessary. It says as much at the end when it notes that the Framework will be open-ended. So unlike under the previous administration, we will not be seeing Frameworks every three years.  

The Localism Act, the Open Public Services White Paper, Community Budgeting pilots and a comment by the Fire Minister at the recent Future of Fire Summit are the real focus of the government.


Community Control

The Localism Act and the Open Public Services white paper, with their focus on community responsibility, community right to buy, community right to challenge and local referendums have already been discussed within the Service. An interesting focus for the Fire and Rescue Service is the Minister's comments and Community Budgeting.

Bob Neil, Minister for Fire, recently spoke at the Future of Fire Summit in Solihull. Possibly not surprising - there are not too many Fire and Rescue Service conferences and so not too taxing for the Minister to appear when invited. Yet two things stood out. Firstly, the conference was being held on the day of the Chancellor's Autumn Statement - by all accounts a three line whip for all MPs. And secondly, a couple of very small points the Minister made which may have a significant impact upon the Fire and Rescue Service.

While briefly listing some of the areas the government will want to focus on in the coming years, Bob Neill highlighted that at a time when fires are at an all time low, the number of firefighters and the cost of providing the service has not significantly changed.

Around the country, FRAs have had to make significant budget cuts to meet the reduced money available. These cuts were to be for three to four years, but all that could now change.

The Chancellor's Autumn Statement highlighted the economic issues facing the UK. An additional 310,000 public sector jobs are to be lost by 2017; borrowing and unemployment are higher than expected and the spending cuts will also carry on to 2017. The forecasted growth is now 0.9 per cent from the 1.7 per cent forecast in March and will fall further next year - 0.7 per cent compared to the 2.5 per cent previously forecast. 2011-12 will see an extra £5bn borrowed by the UK and over five years, the government is expected to borrow £11bn more than predicted in March. Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, told BBC Newsnight that the government did not yet know where the bulk of the £30bn additional cuts would come from. 

George Osborne has already shown that he is not for turning. Reducing the deficit is his main focus. Though it is true that the Fire and Rescue Service will not be high on the list of where the additional cuts will fall, due to its overall budget being relatively small, it cannot expect to escape unscathed. 

The interesting question is whether the government will look to the Fire and Rescue Service to cut as they generally are now − reduce back office staff a little more, try to wring a bit more efficiency by altering staffing or deployment − or whether the government will look to something a little bit more radical.

As part of the government's review into local government finances, two areas within the country are being selected to help co-design a Community Budget, 'bringing all funding on local public services from the area into a single pot to test how to create the right local financial set up to deliver better services people want'.[1] 


Community Budgeting Profile

Obviously, the idea is at an early stage, and the pilots have not yet been chosen, but what could a Community Budget look like? I would argue that it will not be like participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting is where a number of organisations lump a sum together and seek the public's view on what projects that money should be spent on. It is carried out in a number of ways but overall the amounts involved are relatively small, under £1m.

Community Budgeting is operating in a number of ways, but focusing on bringing all funding from local public services into a single pot. How could it work if further cuts are needed and how would it affect the Fire and Rescue Service? For an example, imagine a region where the public services overlap (the fire and rescue authority operates in the same area as a local authority, or authorities, as well as police etc). That region needs to make a further budget reduction of 20 per cent. One way would be to ask each organisation to cut back by 20 per cent, but that is not what Community Budgeting is about; it is about local people deciding where the money is spent. 

So instead, the local elected officials start to look at whose budget is easier to cut than others.  What do the public want more of and what is the level of risk in cutting each organisation's budget?

On first thoughts, the fire and rescue authority is in a strong position. The budgets are relatively small and, on the whole, people have a positive view of the work undertaken by the Service. But when tax comes into it, where will people want that money spent? Will the public want to reduce the education of their children or the health care offered to their families before they want to see a fire station, or two, closed down? When the threat of fire is low, will the public still want to see the same number of stations and the same number of firefighters? Government obviously do not think so.


For full story check out the next issue of FIRE magazine.


Posted February 8th, 2012 at 1110 by Andrew. Comment by emailing: