Councils like Bradford are empowering communities by procuring locally

Keep it small, keep it local.

We’re beginning to see a shift in the story told about local government. For years all we’ve heard has been doom and gloom: deep cuts, rising demand, difficult decisions.

But in local government we refuse to be bowed by the weight of austerity.  Increasingly we are the originators of something far more positive.

Not because of any change in external circumstances; far from it. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel in terms of ongoing austerity and the huge pressure it has been piling on local areas for almost a decade now.

However, up and down the country councils are finding creative solutions. At the heart of this is a big shift in approach: away from outsourcing services at scale, towards unlocking the power of community.

Bradford is pleased to be at the forefront of this new direction. So, along with other councils, we’ve joined the Keep it Local Network.

It’s convened by Locality – the national membership network for community organisations – in partnership with Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales. And it’s building a movement of likeminded councils who are forging strong local partnerships to maximise their local strengths.

The outsourcing model took hold a decade ago as councils searched desperately for short term savings. The theory went you could drive down costs by bundling up services into mega outsourcing contracts that go to big providers at the lowest price possible.

But this has been proven a mirage. Time and again, these big contracts have not only failed to deliver the quality of service or savings promised. They’ve ultimately seen councils’ precious procurement spend leak out of the local area without achieving maximum benefit for local residents. 

In Bradford we’ve committed to work towards six Keep it Local principles which set out what this path means in practice. It means we’re thinking about the whole system, rather than individual service silos.

Coordinating services at a neighbourhood level. Increasing our local spend to invest in the local economy. Focusing on early intervention now to save costs tomorrow. Committing to our community and proactively supporting local organisations. And commissioning services simply and collaboratively so they are ‘local by default’.

We want to use these principles to guide our policy development in the years to come, but they also really emphasise what we’re already trying to do here in Bradford. 

First and foremost, this is about empowerment. We want to make sure people have more control over what happens locally. 

Procurement is a big part of this – making sure that local providers aren’t crowded out of the process by big contracts or excessive bureaucracy, so they have the opportunity to provide local services.

But it’s also about making the most of things like community asset transfer, to give communities power over their buildings and community spaces.

Community asset transfer can often be a win-win for councils, as it not only gives communities control over the places that really matter to them, it also gives more options to bring in funding from other sources that are unavailable to the council.

Secondly, it’s about increasing local spend to invest in the local economy. Currently, about 40% of the money we spend as a local council is with locally based organisations. Our ambition is to make that 60%.

There are practical things we can do to make that happen. For example, we’ve upped the threshold for when contracts need to go through a full tender process.

For anything that’s below £180,000 we can invite local bidders and we don’t have to advertise. By spending our money locally, we are creating jobs in our district, providing opportunities and supporting local supply chains to make sure the Bradford pound goes further. 

Thirdly, Keeping it Local is about creating better services. This isn’t about altruism, or working with local organisations because it’s a nice thing to do. We want to Keep it Local because we know it’s the best way to provide the best possible offer for our communities. 

Take our Home Support contracts for example. We used to have seven framework lots that were spread across the district’s five constituencies. The fact that the contracts were operating at that kind of large scale meant they sometimes went to big providers.

This created a situation where those providers were having to travel miles and miles across the borough to a person to cater for their home care needs. So what we’ve done is break down the contract into much smaller lots.

We’ve now got 22 providers, operating over 17 areas. 12 of them are local and they are providing a much better service in these places because they’re from the community and have people working for them who are from that community. It ensures they are more efficient and provides a better service for local people.

At a time when centralised and market-driven orthodoxies are crumbling, we need a system that is built on genuine partnership between local government and local people.

Sometimes we hear the objection that local people don’t want to get more involved in services – that they just want to receive a transactional service and be left alone.

Paternalism runs deep. We have to challenge this thinking where we see it. There are skills and talents in every community if you give people the opportunity and the right support. 

So it’s for these reasons – to increase local spend, to create better services and to empower our citizens – that Keep it Local is such a good fit for us.

We’re not there yet – there is still a long way to go until we have truly transformed our approach. But we’re committed to driving change and really pleased to be part of this growing movement. Sometimes it feels like we’re on our own in local government. The support we can provide to, and receive from, other likeminded councils through the Keep it Local Network will be invaluable as we forge this new path together.

Susan Hinchcliffe is a Labour councillor and the leader of Bradford Council.

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