‘EasyCouncil’ gives no-frills engagement

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In High Barnet, north London, volunteer Sarah Challice has been distributing leaflets to 2,500 homes and visiting every shop.

This is not a grassroots election campaign but the launch of the High Barnet Green Home Zone. A group of volunteers is pushing the scheme, with council backing, to help residents cut down on household carbon dioxide emissions, promote recycling and campaign for the removal of plastic bags from the area.

It is just the kind of community empowerment that David Cameron extolled on Tuesday as he made the “big society” a central theme of the Conservative manifesto launch.

The London borough of Barnet, which has been dubbed “EasyCouncil” for its efforts to offer a no-frills service and transfer responsibilities to the community as a way of cutting spending, is one of the Tory authorities at the forefront of the debate on changing the relationship between citizen and state.

Some of its initiatives offer a concrete illustration of the Tory thinking. Cutting the cost of disposing of household waste is one of the central priorities for local authorities as they struggle with shrinking budgets. Providing information to help boost recycling and cut landfill has generally been a public sector task, for example, but Barnet is keen for residents to take the lead.

The council acknowledges that such a scheme is more “cost effective”, but says its real value is in giving citizens rather than government the lead in developing green behaviour.

“Should it be the council or should it be us doing this?” asks Ms Challice. “I think the council are finding that when they try to do things there’s not a lot of response.

“We hope that if it comes from the community people are more willing to listen, and I would like to think we can go beyond what the council could do.”

Ms Challice says she understands the argument that transferring responsibilities to the community is a way of saving money for local authorities, but she believes it might also be a way of forging greater local engagement.

Barnet has been active in developing initiatives to change the way services are delivered. For example, it is allocating “personal budgets” to social services users to allow them, rather than the authorities, to choose how they spend money allocated to their care.

In a similar initiative to the green homes scheme, Barnet has also launched Social Care Direct as a way of cutting back on the expensive manual of information it provides to users of adult social services.

The theory is to create an online Ebay-style community, where users of services rate their experiences and provide information to other residents in the borough. This offers another cost saving to the council, but again Barnet argues that it will provide more effective service recommendations.

Adriana Quaradeghini, a user of mental health services who has been involved with trials of the service, has mixed feelings. She says a means of sharing experiences of social services could be very valuable.

But she adds: “I don’t know if people will want to use it. There are people who don’t have the money to access a computer or the skills to use one.”

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