What councils need to unlock place-based prevention

August 7, 2023  

This article first appeared in the LGC briefing.

Government action is needed to ensure councils’ ambitious and expansive vision for preventative work can be realised, writes Grace Pollard.

Many in Westminster would agree that there needs to be a greater focus on prevention – Labour, for example has spoken of moving away from “sticking plaster politics”, while the health & social care secretary recently set out “a Conservative approach to targeted prevention”.

But much of the discussion remains in the abstract. The real work of making this shift to prevention a reality needs to happen locally, with central government concentrating on how it can enable this work and help remove the barriers that get in the way.

Councils and their partners deeply understand what place-based prevention should look like – though struggle to achieve this vision in practice given budgetary constraints, demand pressures and barriers to partnership working.

Seen through the lens of a place, prevention is expansive and not limited to a narrow set of services or sectors. Across local areas there are a whole range of services and approaches – often strengths-based, relational or community-focused – working to address the root causes of problems, improve outcomes for people and potentially reduce the need for further support from statutory services. The problem is these ways of working often remain at the edge of the system rather than at the core.

Councils, partners and communities have the appetite, ideas and insight to build local preventative systems.

Councils deliver work right across this spectrum – but also understand only too well the challenges of growing and sustaining this broad approach to prevention.

Community teams utilise asset-based approaches and work upstream of services helping to strengthen community groups and networks of support. Local area coordinators work with individuals to understand and recognise their strengths and networks before considering formal services. There are innovative approaches in children’s social care such as those recognised in the independent review by Josh MacAlister which “harness the power of community”. Councils also act as place-convenors, bringing together partners and communities to take action on root causes that get in the way of people living happy and healthy lives.

While there are already pockets of brilliant work, councils and their partners need backing from policymakers to ensure this ambitious and expansive vision for prevention across places can be realised. Here are three key issues that require attention:

  • Funding – A place-based funding approach is needed to incentivise investment in prevention and collaboration across local systems. There are opportunities to learn from past approaches like whole-place community budgets and the total place pilots. Policymakers need to take this learning and work in partnership with local areas to reimagine a place-based funding approach fit for tackling today’s challenges.
  • Outcomes and measurement – A new place-based funding approach would help to align incentives and identify shared prevention-focused outcomes across local systems. The new Office for Local Government should also support councils to better understand and measure the impact of the range of preventative action happening across a place.
  • Devolution – Economic growth is often the central focus of devolution deals. While this is incredibly important, there is a missed opportunity for devolution to focus on public service reform and prevention. Councils drawing up devolution proposals and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities should both look at what powers would enable areas to make progress on this prevention agenda.

Councils, partners and communities have the appetite, ideas and insight to build local preventative systems. Central government now needs to initiate open dialogue with local areas to create the conditions which will enable places to make this vision of prevention a reality.

Image credit: DronePics.Wales. CC-BY 4.0.

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