Stephen Bubb of Aveco says the NHS needs community providers with new ideas about delivering services. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian
In any economy, let alone one in recession, capital is king, so it is a primary consideration when contemplating reform of public services.
As both the chief executive of Social Enterprise London and chair of theTransition Institute, which supports public services, I am an advocate of those independent providers who offer affordable, quality services with social impact and real accountability.
Today we are being asked how we stand on NHS reforms. Through the work we have done in public services and, in particular, health, we have seen some wonderful organisations offer innovative, patient-centred services on reduced budgets. To achieve this does mean acknowledging competition in the NHS.
But here is where I have a problem: almost without exception, the procurement processes that have come from government in the last 18 months have been large – and are getting larger. They have increasingly favoured those applicants with capital, lots of it. In some bidding rounds, applicants have been required to prove the existence of large capital sums or capital bonds as an essential part of the process, which excludes most if not all community-driven providers.
The innovators I refer to offer extraordinary opportunity to link motivated staff with happy patients, such as those treated by City Health Care Partnership CIC in Hull. City Health is an employee-owned service, like Central Surrey Health, that provides award-winning, community-based healthcare. I have to say both these organisations do not have the look or feel of a privatised company, but a new generation of public service, with the strongest possible public service ethic.
I read with interest Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, and a board member of the Transition Institute, whose article in the Times on Wednesday considered the NHS reforms. Bubb was a member of the Future Forum that reviewed the reforms over the summer and he attended the No 10 NHS summit on Monday.
As someone at the heart of the debate, Bubb tells us: "Almost everyone agrees we have a problem when over 70% of NHS funding is spent on treating long-term conditions, usually in the most inefficient way there is: in hospital.
"And almost everyone agrees that if the NHS is to cope with these pressures, it must shift resources towards preventative, patient-led, community-based services which treat chronic conditions far more effectively and which act to pre-empt acute crises of ill health."
He goes on to say: "Might I also suggest that the majority of observers agree that to carry out this change effectively, the NHS must allow new providers with new ideas to break the bureaucratic stranglehold on service delivery … What frustrates many of my members, the leaders of the country's charities and social enterprises, is that, despite the consensus on both problems and solutions, the debate over reform focuses on the phantom of 'privatisation'."
All of us on the front lines of community service share Bubb's belief that, with a fair crack at the whip, we could make a real contribution, but to do that a number of things have to change.
I don't think this is a debate about whether to privatise or not: the NHS has always been a mixed model and will continue to be so. No, this is about big versus small or, more specifically and sadly, this is about financial versus social capital.
Most of the members Bubb is referring to have a great track record but limited access to capital. Like Social Enterprise London members and those approaching the Transition Institute, they are finding it harder and harder to succeed in a commissioning process that pits them against companies which don't have the track record but do have the cash.
The principle of this debate is clear: everyone wants universal, quality healthcare, free at the point of use, but the means to achieving that are bound to be complex, even if money wasn't so tight. The Transition Institute thinks it has part of the answer in that we can supply willing providers of quality, community-driven service solutions. All government has to do is procure those services and look for capital elsewhere.
Allison Ogden Newton is chief executive of Social Enterprise London