The Conservative Party’s green paper is big on empowerment for local government. It is also – but less noticably – big on joint working by councils and the amalgamation of back office functions.
Perhaps it was fear that the message of ‘freeing local government from central control’ would be overshadowed that meant the Tories’ proposals on back office mergers were not in the green paper’s executive summary. Nor is it something that Caroline Spelman, the new shadow secretary of state for communities and local government, apparently wants to highlight – the Conservatives declined to comment on proposals for administrative reform.
But the proposals are there nonetheless – and they are potentially very significant for local authorities. Section 2.7 of the green paper commits the party not to pursue further local government reorganisation. Instead it wants to see much more co-operation between councils.
This policy agenda was first publicly suggested by former shadow local government secretary, Eric Pickles, in an online debate on the ConservativeHome website. Pickles said: “We will encourage local authorities to share power and finance on common problems…… I am extremely determined that we make the functions of local government work as efficiently and effectively as possible to ensure we offer the best possible services and the lowest council tax possible. No city or county will [be] forced to change their status, but we will expect councils to share back office functions to co-operate and work together, and focus on delivery not navel gazing.”
Despite the change in shadow local government secretary, it appears there is no change in Conservative policy. The green paper praises the shared services hub in Worcestershire – bringing together the county council with the three districts of Malvern Hills, Wychavon and Worcester City Council. It also cites the co-operation between Wyre Borough and Fylde Borough Councils. (See box.) According to press reports, the Conservatives might also encourge neighbouring councils to share senior staff.
In some respects, though, the proposals are hardly revolutionary – much work is already being done in improving joint working to achieve efficiencies. In particular, the Improvement and Development Agency’s Regional Improvement and Efficiency Partnerships (RIEPs) have been running in every English region since April last year, after the merger of the Regional Improvement Partnerships and the Regional Centres of Excellence. Part of RIEPs’ objective is to ensure that local government works together to improve services and they are backed by a three year budget of £185m to do this.
Keith Beaumont, RIEPs programme manager at the Improvement and Development Agency, believes that RIEPS will become even more prominent and focus more sharply on encouraging joint work between local authorities as a result of the just published Roots Review of efficiency in local government. “Good progress is being made in RIEPs supporting local authorities who want to work more closely together,” he says. “But there will be more focus on this, especially from the recommendations coming from Roots.”
Much is already happening, Beaumont points out. In particular, there are joint working arrangements between Sussex’s Adur and Worthing district councils, in which the councils have shared a joint senior management team since April last year. “The south east RIEP is giving support to it,” explains Beaumont. “That is a very tangible example.” It looks as if many more tangible examples will follow – whatever happens at the next general election.
Fylde and Wyre borough councils, Lancashire
Co-operation between Fylde and Wyre councils “ranges across a number of areas”, says Fylde’s deputy chief executive Jan Finch. An important aspect of this is coastal sea defences. Fylde had built-up expertise in both improving its sea defences and in using them as an attractive promenade that stengthens its tourism promotion. Fylde, a slightly smaller authority, doesn’t “have the resources we have” on sea defences says Finch. “So it was natural for them to come to us and to Blackpool to use the resources available locally,” she explains. Developing their own coastal defence expertise would not have been cost-effective.
The two authorities also share a procurement officer, because neither is large enough on its own to justify one for a single authority, while two similar councils can benefit from economies of scale. Fylde operates the refuse and recycling service for the two boroughs.
No calculation of total savings has been made, but Finch says they are clearly significant. Other collaborations are being developed, in particular through a multi area agreement, involving the two councils plus Blackpool and Lancashire, to tackle economic regeneration, tourism, jobs and transport.
Worcester City, Worcestershire, Wychavon and Malvern Hills
A shared service centre to run the revenue and benefits operation has been in place across the three districts, with the backing of the county council, since July 2007. It is “very successful”, says Worcester City Council’s head of financial services, Grahame Lucas. There is also a shared contact centre, the ‘Worcestershire Hub’, which involves the county and city councils and several districts.
Worcester City, Wychavon and Malvern Hills have merged their building control functions. This has assisted them to retain skilled staff and deploy them more efficiently, in a period when demand has fallen. The city and county councils are currently in the process of merging parts of the two museums services and the two youth and community services. This should lead to greater management efficiency and allow for a rationalisation of community centres operating in the city, while improving the quality of service management.
The city and county councils are also on course to merge a range of back office functions, which are to be outsourced to Mouchel. Proposals for this have been approved by the cabinets of both city and county. The county council’s payroll system is already shared across the two authorities and this is to be extended to the county’s SAP system. The city council has agreed an objective of cutting back office costs by 25% and it believes the greater sharing of back office facilities will not only achieve this but, on the basis of Mouchel’s estimates, allow for a further saving of £500,000, or 10% of its budget.