Council mergers: taking local government by storm

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2019

It’s no secret that councils up and down the country are scrambling to keep services afloat as they try to balance dwindling resources with growing demand. In line with the ‘doing more with less’ philosophy, one of the solutions to this conundrum has been restructuring local government altogether. PSE’s Jack Donnelly speaks to the leading voices behind two of these major reforms.

It’s a Sunday afternoon at dusk: you are out with your loved ones, enjoying the dying embers of the weekend. The nights are drawing in, and as the streetlights come on, you track down a narrow pavement along a busy stretch of road and are forced to step out because an overgrown hedge blocks your path. “Someone could easily get hurt if they’re not careful here,” you think. Better get that leaflet out and ring someone from the council to get it sorted.

As you fish your monthly council newsletter out of the kitchen drawer, you are faced with an endless reel of phone numbers: which is the department that deals with my issue? Is it planning? Waste management? Are we in a district or county council? Who are my parish councillors? And what on Earth is the difference between it all?

These are daily challenges that area residents encounter: a lack of awareness of how their council supports daily life means that the people whom the council is supposed to serve are not getting the most out of its services – and, more importantly, those who need the local authority’s help the most rarely know the best avenue to go down to get the help they desperately require.

One route that could offer a solution is the aligning of services in the county: a one-size-fits-all, all-under-one-roof single unitary council. Providing the services of planning applications and play areas, community centres and council tax collections, this one-stop-shop of council functions aims to make lives easier for councillors and locals alike. Several local authorities have already gone through with the process, with major county councils including Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Cumbria all mulling over potential avenues that could abolish the current two-tier structure in favour of a more streamlined approach.

The future of Bucks

Cllr Martin Tett, leader of Buckinghamshire County Council and LGA board member, has been one of the driving forces behind the fusion of functions that would see his county council and its four inhabitant district councils abolished in favour of the single authority option. Cllr Tett said the unitary option unlocks three key benefits for Bucks County Council: it sheds the local authority of a dated and layered current system, allows it to assess services on an integrated and joined-up level, and provides better value for taxpayers in the area.

He explained: “I’ve spent most of my life in private business – and in any organisation I’ve ever worked for, if you find that your revenue is dropping, you have a look at your costs to see if you can actually reorganise and do things better and more efficiently. So I think that after a fair number of years since the two-tier council structure was formed, in 1889, it’s not a bad idea to look at your structures again and say, ‘does this really make sense in 2018?’”

Arguably the most prominent argument for promoting a reorganisation in local government, finances will pressure councils to look towards the restructure. LGA analysis in July claimed that local governments in England will face a funding gap of almost £8bn by 2025, putting councils on the “brink of collapse.” Northamptonshire County Council, the most cash-strapped local authority in the country, voted in August in favour of a unitary style of governance in a bid to balance the books.

“Even though the chancellor said in October that this was the ʻend of austerity,ʼ I can’t see things getting really that much better,” Cllr Tett told me. “We’re not going to see so much money put back into local government that we’re going to see all of the reductions of the last 10 years reinstated. We’re going to have to learn as a local government network to cope, and to do more with less on an ongoing basis. That means driving better value in the system, and I think the ways in which we can come together and purchase better and commission better must drive better value.”

The Dorset story

The benefits of reorganisation are evident, then, but when establishing a unitary, clear challenges come up against it: how does the new council ensure that all of the district and borough councils are on board, and how does the new larger authority meet residents’ demands that once used to be met by the smaller councils? This is one of the challenges Matt Prosser, chief executive of the new Dorset Council, will look to meet when the reorganisation comes into effect at the end of April next year.

“The focus for us will be on creating a safe and legal counsel, and a seamless transition from the six councils that will make up the new Dorset Council – based on the residents not noticing any difference to the experience they have on a Friday afternoon as they do on a Monday morning between the end of March and the beginning of April,” Prosser said.

His neighbouring new unitary – Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council – suffered a tumultuous formation period when Christchurch Borough Council’s opposition to the proposals took the unitary debate all the way to the High Court, whose judges eventually ruled in favour of the plans.

Because the unitary council would, in effect, abolish the current councils in that area, some district authorities from counties such as Buckinghamshire and Nottinghamshire have outlined their opposition to the plans. The leadership team of the new council will need to ensure that all bodies are singing from the same hymn sheet when the new unitary is put in place.

Prosser explained: “My background is bringing councils together, so there’s nothing yet that’s made me go ‘oh blimey, I didn’t see that coming,’ but there is a scale of this in this organisation. You’re talking about 6,000 employees plus the education staff on top of that, so about 11,000 employees – you’ve got multiple cultures across those six organisations currently.

“Inevitably in that there will be people who are desperately open to something new, and there will be some people who are resistant to it. We need to understand where that resistance is and how we can help unlock that.”

Whilst the future structure of local government across the country remains unclear, one thing is certain: a streamlined, holistic approach of working with the community can open up the potential for savings, an integrated style of services and, perhaps most importantly, achieve greater clarity of the services provided to help those most in need as quickly and effectively as possible.

There are some major obstacles to overcome, however, that require an ‘all for one, one for all’ attitude that can get all council members on board and working towards the best possible outcome.

With local government budgets shortening seemingly by the day, we may just depend on it.


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