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News - 4 May 2008

LAA Land

Local Area Agreements (LAAs) are a vehicle for the city to agree a wide ranging set of priorities about the local economy, crime, health and society with central government. There are 150 LAAs across the UK (including one in Brighton & Hove). What do they tell us about the city, the government, the country and the universe?

In theory LAAs are quite a good idea. Instead of lots of ring fenced funding streams that can only be used for specific purposes local authorities can choose what they need to prioritise and pool some of the funding streams to tackle important local issues.

The government promised increased freedoms and flexibilities to allow councils to be imaginative and bold in the way they tried to redress whatever they felt was important.

The construction of a LAA is overseen by the Local Strategic Partnership to ensure that it involves all the key players that make a place work e.g. police, health authority, business community, community and voluntary sector (now re-branded the Third Sector) etc. etc.

Also “buy-in” from all parties would mean that mainstream funding could also be channelled into addressing agreed priorities across the city. So in theory, the interested parties could decide that drug abuse was an important priority and the police could give some of their funding to the health authority (or vice versa) to address the issue.

The government produced a set of 198 national indicators and local authorities have to choose 35 that they endeavour to improve in a binding agreement with central government. If they do they get cash rewards.

Why 198 indicators, as opposed to 200 or 199, is a bit of an unknown but it is generally agreed that 198 is a better figure than the 2000+ that councils previously had to measure and report back to central government. There is also agreement that, since many of the individual indictors actually ask councils to measure four or five separate things there are more than 198 in the real total but let’s not split hairs.

Most of the 150 LAAs are approaching the point where their local authority negotiations with government are coming to a close and they paint an interesting picture of the commonality of local issues across the UK and also those issues that councils feel they have some control over.

A whopping 78% of all LAAs (including Brighton & Hove LAA) have chosen the indicator (N117 to use the jargon) that aims to reduce the number of 16-18 year olds who are not in education, training or employment (NEET). There are about 550 in Brighton & Hove although up to a third of them might be just in-between courses or jobs.

Perhaps as a sign of the increasing concern about global warming 69% want to reduce per capita CO2 emissions (N186) and the same number have opted to reduce pregnancy in under 18 year olds (N112) and 66% have pledged to increase the number of affordable homes available in their locality (N155). Given the dramatic slowdown in house building and the credit crunch many may now be regretting the inclusion of this indicator but the government has probably demanded its inclusion in a large number of cases.

The government are able to make such “demands”. All the indicators that make up a LAA are “negotiated” with central government and it is difficult for a council to leave something out that the government office thinks should be left in.

The less popular indicators are probably those that council’s feel they have very little control over such as increasing the average earnings of employees (N166) with only 19% inclusion in the UK’s current round of LAAs.

Local authorities also felt that they could do very little about the number of VAT registered businesses employing fewer than 50 people showing growth in employment (N172) which also found its way into only 19% of LAAs. This is in contrast to the indicator to increase the number of VAT registered businesses (N171), which appears in almost half of all LAAs.

There has been considerable “buy in” from the various parties that have put together the Brighton & Hove LAA, helped no doubt by a “statutory duty to cooperate” for agencies like the police and the health authorities. But the business community and the Third Sector have also pitched in and devoted considerable time to the LAA process despite no statutory duty to do so.

However there has also been some disappointment that many of the much vaunted freedoms and flexibilities that were promised three years ago when LAAs were born have not materialised. Indeed despite LAAs being reconfirmed as the vehicle de jour in the recent Sub National Review of Economic Development some government departments have still declined to sign up to them e.g. the Department for Work & Pensions.

The development of the Brighton & Hove LAA, which will be signed off over the next few weeks has been a considerable team effort and a testament to deft handling of an overly bureaucratic process foisted on the local authority by government, who often appeared to be making it up as they went along.

The new Brighton & Hove LAA will last for three years and should go some way to addressing a variety of issues of major concern to the city but it may be difficult to get the buy of the business community when the next one rolls around unless the government delivers more of those freedoms and flexibilities and the whole process is a lot less bureaucratic.

Read related items on:
Local Area Agreement
Brighton & Hove City Council
Department of Work & Pensions

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