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Saving services by co-locating

Source: Public Sector Executive April/May 2014

Cllr Steve Eling, deputy leader and cabinet member for finance at Sandwell Council, talks about the co-location of services in the face of budget cuts.

Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, as part of its efforts to save money and consolidate services in the face of severe budget cuts, has started the process of co-locating some of its services – mainly in local libraries.

Cllr Steve Eling, deputy leader and cabinet member for council finances, told PSE that the council is cutting the number of operational buildings on its books to save on overheads.

Consolidating services

He said: “In terms of service provision in our neighbourhoods, some of our better buildings are libraries and they have the capacity to offer the space for co-locating services,” said Cllr Eling. “So, in the past, where different parts of a council may have had their own building in a particular neighbourhood we are looking to consolidate the services into one location so that we can remove old, inefficient buildings and operational costs.”

An example of this was when a neighbourhood housing office was closed and the staff moved into the town-level housing office. “But what the housing officers do, a couple of times per week, is provide a frontline facing service for local tenants at the local Thimblemill library in Bearwood,” he said.

So far the service from the housing team seems to have been well-received, providing what they call a ‘housing surgery’. The SureStart centre also uses the Thimblemill library building for some of its sessions.

“This shows that we can use buildings for a multitude of purposes and be more cost-effective in what we provide,” said Cllr Eling. “It really is about delivering the best option for the neighbourhood and ensuring
we keep services going.”

The concept also highlights that it is possible to offer a public-facing service in neighbourhoods without having to run a fully-staffed office in the area.

Delivering quality

Cllr Eling added: “It makes sense to consolidate services into the best quality buildings we have in a neighbourhood. This means we can lose the stuff that perhaps isn’t the best quality or has high running costs and would need a fair amount of investment to keep the services running.”

Housing and social services seem to be most affected by such relocation of services, but from what PSE has been told, all the measures are about attempting to safeguard front-line services, especially as the authority needs to make budget cuts totalling £120m by 2016, compared to 2010.

Financial woes

By the end of this financial year alone, the local authority has to make £90m worth of savings. But, on top of this, council leader Darren Cooper recently revealed a further £28m of cuts will also be faced by the West Midlands authority.

Looking ahead, Cllr Eling is not sure how long the co-locating of services provisions could last – despite them seeming to work on the operational level.

“On top of the £120m cuts needed by 2016, we are assuming that – if nothing changes at the next election – there will be another £20m cuts set for the year after, which would bring the figure to £140m,” he said. “Quite frankly, if we see cuts come in on top of that then we won’t be co-locating services anymore we will just be closing them all together.

“We’ll have gone past the point where services can be sustained at any understandable or currently recognisable form.”

Even now, despite the council’s best efforts, including the co-location provisions, everything is running “on a shoestring”.

“Whereas services would have had a reasonable level of staffing in the past, they now have to survive on the absolute bare minimum,” said Cllr Eling. “Our effort is about consolidating frontline service provision into the best places and having less running costs, which will help with the sustainability of those services. We want to keep our services running and if we need to re-shape how they have worked up until now, we will do that.”


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