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  • Writer's pictureJohn Copps

Could a return of 2009’s Total Place policy be part of the solution to public services’ challenges in 2024?

With murmurs of a post-election return of the previous Labour government’s Total Place policy, John Copps looks at why it is still relevant.

At the end of January shadow devolution and local government minister Jim McMahon MP suggested a return of Total Place, should the Labour Party win the Election in 2024.

Total Place was a programme conceived in the dying days of the last Labour administration as a ‘whole area’ approach to public services. Its aim was to test and demonstrate how public services can be better – and save money – when agencies work together to shape and deliver them within a ‘place’. The approach means looking at every pound spent in an area against a single agreed plan and set of outcomes.


In many ways Total Place was borne of circumstance following the 2008 financial crisis, its impact on government finances and the search for cost savings. But it was also radical in imagining a more holistic view of services than was prevalent at the time, challenging the culture of individual organisational targets and management accountability that had developed over the previous decade.


So why the return of a policy from 15 years ago? And what has it got to offer public services in 2024?


A lot has changed in a decade-and-half since Total Place was running. But some things haven’t. From both perspectives, there are reasons to see Total Place as still relevant – and in an election year everyone is looking for ideas. Rare in current policy, it doesn’t feel divisive and could appeal across the political spectrum.


Will Total Place, or a version of it, make it into any of the political manifestos? We think that there are three reasons why it might.


First – and most obviously – public services are subject even greater financial constraints than after the 2008 crash. Public services have had savings squeezed out of them over the last 15 years and the well is now dry. Total Place holds the promise of savings or cost avoidance at a system level by structuring things differently, reducing duplication, and providing joined up support to vulnerable people. By insisting on a ‘place-level view’ it avoids the disincentive to action caused by the cost and benefits of problems being felt by different organisations.


Second, Total Place provides a framework that is suited to deal with complex problems. Since 2010, the needs of the population have changed: there are now 2 million more people over 65 in the UK, and chronic rather than acute conditions dominate health, social care and housing spend. What this means is that it is often futile and nonsensical for individual organisations to tackle problems in isolation. Public services recognise this, even if it is something that is hard to address. Total Place would give local services the space and resources to do it.


Third, the context in which public services works has shifted in recent year. Collaboration is increasingly emphasised above competition, the promise of devolution is encouraging local services to work together, and new governance structures are emerging, with a hope of more aligned budgets. ‘Place’ is no longer a novel term but is part of the lexicon of public services, as evident in local government combined authorities and across Integrated Care Systems. A fear in the early days of 2009 was that Total Place would fail because local services didn’t want to work together. This feels like less of a risk today as ‘place leadership’ edges towards the preferred way of doing things. All this suggests fertile ground for a renewal of Total Place.


For all these reasons, we see Total Place as part of an approach to tackle the issues facing public services. Pull on the threads of change over the last 15 years and it suggests the policy is worth another shot. For the Labour Party it could be seen as ‘unfinished business’.


Who would’ve thought a policy from 2009 would look relevant today? But far from being a relic, Total Place still feels remarkably fresh.

To read our article about 2009's Total Place pilots, with lessons we have learnt from the policy, click here.

To read more about MV's work in place leadership click here.


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