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GO Interview – Richard Buxton

Sunday September 20th, 2009

by Morven MacNeil, GO Features Editor

Richard Buxton, Interim Chief Executive of Local Partnerships, speaks to GO Features Editor Morven MacNeil about the new organisation, set up to provide advice to public service bodies at community level, and the organisation’s plans for the future.

A new body has been established to support and improve public services and infrastructure at community level. Local Partnerships will operate locally and act as a single source of expert advice on projects and infrastructure through joined-up working and greater efficiency.

Local Partnerships will provide investment and advice on Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs), Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and other funding mechanisms, as well as the delivery of major local projects. The new body will be able to offer support across traditional boundaries, such as those between local authorities and Primary Care Trusts. 

Joined-up working among local public bodies is increasingly important with the launch of initiatives such as Total Place. Total Place is an ambitious and challenging programme, designed by the Leadership Centre for Local Government (LCLG), and looks to answer the simple question: ‘Can we do better for less?’ Along with its partners in Communities and Local Government, the Local Government Association (LGA) and IDeA, LCLG is working with 13 volunteer pilot areas – which have each chosen a theme, or themes, to report on – to change working cultures and deliver real change in public sector service delivery.

Local Partnerships staff will work for and on behalf of local public service bodies, including local authorities, primary care trusts, probation boards, police authorities, third sector organisations, social enterprises and sub-regional groups.

Local Partnerships’ priorities include: 

  • running Gateway Reviews on projects run by local public bodies across England
  • providing efficiency advice on asset management and back-office functions
  • skills development programmes to build capacity and capability in public bodies
  • support to the Building Schools for the Future programme
  • producing procurement packs with best practice advice
  • providing expert transactor support to individual projects
  • management and delivery of regional and national investment programmes

So, why has Local Partnerships been established? How important is infrastructure delivery when achieving efficiency targets? And what future initiatives will the organisation be involved in? GO spoke to Richard Buxton, Interim Chief Executive of Local Partnerships, to find out.

Why has Local Partnerships been formed?

Until recently there was an organisation called 4ps which was one hundred per cent owned by the LGA and focused on infrastructure for local authorities. However, there was a growing recognition within the LGA that if local authorities were going to be looking at significant changes, then they needed to look outside the box, they needed to be working much more collaboratively with other organisations that are operating at a local level. Therefore, it made sense from an LGA perspective to widen the scope so that it was taking a more ‘total place’ approach to supporting local authorities and other local public bodies.

It was at this point 4ps thought about a collaboration with Partnerships UK. At the same time, Partnerships UK, which was looking at similar issues from a central government perspective, had developed a business unit which was also beginning to focus work at a local authority level, particularly Primary Care Trusts. When the two organisations met to discuss how to work together, it seemed to make sense to bring together the locally facing elements of Partnerships UK with the local government facing activities of 4ps.

A joint venture was duly created – Local Partnerships. The new body, which is 50 per cent owned by the LGA and 50 per cent owned by Partnerships UK, has a remit to work across all local public bodies, whether local government, health, police, fire, or higher and further education. This includes all of the traditional work that 4ps has done around PFI and variations of PPP, as well as wider activities that are not simply infrastructure focused but also cover service focuses, including overall approaches to efficiency and service delivery.

The initial launch of Local Partnerships included all of the staff who used to work for 4ps. Later in the year, a number of staff from Partnerships UK will also transfer to the new organisation.

Chancellor Alistair Darling announced in April’s Budget Report that an extra £35 billion of recoverable value for money savings needed to be achieved by 2010-11 in light of the findings of the Operational Efficiency Programme (OEP). How important is infrastructure delivery in achieving these efficiency targets?

If you take infrastructure in its wider sense to mean not just the procurement of new infrastructure, but actually reviewing all infrastructure, then I think it has a significant impact.

An important element for Local Partnerships is asset management, and we have been working with a number of local authorities on strategic asset management reviews. Asset management needs to take place in the context of all of the investment within a particular local authority area. We are working with the OGC who are directly involved with the central government estate and it makes sense for us to be looking at their activities while working on our local level remit.

Apart from infrastructure delivery, what other initiatives is Local Partnerships currently involved with?

Quite a lot of the work that Local Partnerships is involved with is around shared services and helping local authorities to identify how they can make themselves more efficient across all of their back-office functions.

For some local authorities the first step may be internal restructuring of their back-office functions to deliver efficiency savings. In other cases, it may be about joining up with other organisations, whether public or private, to create shared service providers. In some cases it will involve the outsourcing of shared service functions.

I think that the better local authorities are putting a lot of effort into thinking about ways of addressing shared services solutions.

Do you believe local authorities are actively seeking value for money to help improve the quality of public services?

I think that the types of local authorities that we work with are determined to achieve their efficiency targets, not just because these targets have been set, but because these are targets which are genuinely going to lead to their ability to do more for less. There is an imperative for local government and all public sector bodies to find ways of doing more with less and that’s why we are getting involved. That’s why they are asking us to work with them.

If there was one piece of advice you could give local authorities who are embarking on infrastructure delivery, what would it be?

Local authorities should not be drawing a line around something and saying: ‘This is our service, we’ve got 50 people in the finance department – how can we save two people in the department?’ They’ve got to be prepared to think outside the box, to ask the question: ‘Do we actually need a finance department – are there different ways of achieving the outcomes that we’re seeking to achieve for the community?’

Being prepared to think radically does not mean that they all need to go in the same direction, but they have to be prepared to think innovatively, both in terms of their own organisation and working collaboratively with other public and private sector organisations who share common interests or common geography.

What does the future hold for Local Partnerships?

One of the things we are looking at which wouldn’t have been possible with 4ps is getting engaged on a much more risk-sharing basis.

Local Partnerships is not just another set of consultants; we are part of the public sector family and our emphasis is very much around delivery. We have got to be prepared to share risk when working on those sorts of projects.

The local public arena is going to be a crucial place for change over the next decade. Local Partnerships will be vital in providing trusted, professional support to local public bodies to improve their ability to source and deliver high-quality, cost-effective public services and infrastructure.

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