For years, various politicians of all persuasions have toured the country, or at least the capital, trotting out some very ambitious words about a greater role for the voluntary sector and social enterprises in delivering public services. Yet on returning to Whitehall, they have found these words hollowed out as officials, lawyers and procurement people confront them with the mundane realities of public procurement.

In truth, there is almost nothing the state can do to enable a greater role for the third sector and social enterprise in public service delivery under the current legal regime (aside from a bit of ‘nudging’ around the margins or through solutions which are so imaginative they are equally rare). Typically, either the state delivers in-house, or a competition is won by whoever submits the best bid, which in all likelihood is a conventional private enterprise.

Yet the Department of Health’s “Right to Request” policy has been perhaps the single most daring escape from the horns of this dilemma. Initial multi-year contracts were awarded uncontested to groups of staff setting up a social enterprise.

But now this decision is coming under scrutiny. The people of Stroud in Gloucestershire are taking the award of one of these contracts to Judicial Review, as part of a campaign against cuts and the break-up of the NHS as they see it. So the DH’s policy will come under question and with it, the award of almost a billion pounds worth of health services to spin-out social enterprises across the country over the last year.

Perhaps (as Hollywood might tell it) it is not just NHS Gloucestershire, but the whole of public policy towards social enterprise which is on trial?