'Doing more with less' is a well-worn adage for UK councils. But increasing financial pressure, exacerbated by the events of this year, mean the question now troubling council leadership teams is how to do even more with even less. Many councils in two-tier areas of England (those with separate District and County councils) see forming a unitary authority as a potential solution. Others feel that this will make it harder to maintain local focus, with the middle ground occupied by those who see potential for smaller-scale mergers.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announced its intention to publish a white paper on devolution and local recovery this autumn, signalling that this would pave the way for consolidation of existing two-tier council areas into unitary authorities, and the formation of further combined authorities. After Luke Hall became Minister for Local Government and Regional Growth in September, mixed messages emerged around the timing and likely recommendations of the report. Various commentators questioned whether this was an appropriate time to consider the wholesale restructuring of local authorities, given the need to focus efforts on coordinating the pandemic response at a local level.
On 12th October, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government put an end to months of speculation. Councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire, and Somerset have now been invited to submit proposals to form unitary authorities, but there is to be no compulsory 'top down' drive for other two-tier areas to follow suit.
Emphasis was also placed on the importance of unitarisation efforts being locally led, with proposals to be assessed against three main criteria. Firstly, the proposals should demonstrate how they would improve local government in the area; they should command significant local support; and finally should relate to a 'credible geography'. A devolution white paper is still expected to be published in due course, and is likely to set out criteria for the formation of further combined authorities.
While asserting that consolidation has the potential to increase efficiency and deliver cost savings, the announcement also acknowledged that there are other ways to achieve these aims. Many councils may be exploring shared service arrangements, strategic alliances or partnerships with the private sector as opportunities to achieve cost savings.
For councils planning consolidation, there are opportunities to rationalise disparate IT landscapes, unify business processes, and streamline their operations, topics, which will be covered in a future blog post. But for both these councils and many others across the UK, effective partnership working offers the potential to deliver financial savings, whilst at the same time enabling meaningful change and improving outcomes for citizens.
At CGI, we have seen first-hand how effective these arrangements can be. The benefits of reduced costs and improved service levels are being enjoyed by the UK councils we work with, and our recent contract extensions with City of Edinburgh and Scottish Borders Councils are testament to this. These partnerships provide councils with a service which is both cost effective and transformational, improving outcomes for local communities and economies.
Alongside the obvious financial benefits, working jointly through managed service partnerships also gives councils access to a wider pool of skilled resources. This mitigates risk for any council IT departments who may have fewer resources with certain niche technical skills, as this capability can exist more easily within a shared service model. It also provides an easier way to boost capacity to deliver change programmes, increasing the agility of the IT operation, and enabling the council to deliver transformation at pace.
Contact me to continue the conversation or to discuss how CGI can support your council with our teams who live and work in your local communities.