MANY councils throughout the UK are now making efficiency savings by sharing some of their services with other local authorities, and an increasing number are looking further ahead by moving towards greater integration.
- Mark Booty
Our 2020 Vision proposal to establish a jointly-owned local authority company to provide services for West Oxfordshire, and for three neighbouring councils, is probably one of the most radical approaches to collaborative working in local government today.
We already work in a close partnership with Cheltenham Borough Council, Forest of Dean and Cotswold District Councils.
This move would enable each of us to face the on-going reductions in government funding and, importantly, maintain the high-quality services our residents have come to expect.
Clearly, we could explore different configurations of joint working arrangements with other councils as a way of making savings, but we already have a good track record of working together with our partner councils and so this proposal makes sense.
It would give us a head start, building on existing solid foundations, rather than starting from scratch.
Six years ago, West Oxfordshire was one of the first district authorities to trial joint working when we started sharing a chief executive post with Cotswold District Council.
At the time, this felt like a very bold step, but it has paid off and we have not looked back.
We now have a joint management team and are sharing more and more services.
In 2012 we established a four-way partnership with Cheltenham, Forest of Dean and Cotswold to centralise our HR, Accounts, Procurement and Payroll sections.
Following on from the success we have achieved through the partnership we were awarded a £500,000 grant from central government in April to develop further joint working opportunities.
Shared working reduces our administration and running costs so that we can continue to protect frontline services for residents, without the need to make cutbacks.
In West Oxfordshire it has enabled us to balance our budgets for the last two years and our council tax has not risen for four years.
Indeed, we are ranked first nationally out of all shire district councils as having the lowest overall cost of services per head per population.
We estimate that, collectively, the partnership can make savings of about £5.5m per year based on estimates from our previous experience of shared services.
As well as the cost-saving benefits and the protection of our high-quality services, we believe our vision will help to protect local democracy in the future, with the concept of retaining four independent authorities supported by one single team lying at the heart of the proposal.
This proposal enables us to make the savings needed, whilst still maintaining democracy, accountability and focus at a district council level.
It eliminates the need to create larger unitary authorities with the added cost this would entail of reconfiguring district level services.
In essence it allows each council to retain more local democratic representation and identity, whilst delivering the efficiency savings.
The decision-making process will not change and councillors will continue to represent their local wards in each of the authorities.
Staff are our greatest asset and we are at great pains to reassure them that although the overall costs for employment will be reduced, we are not looking at a redundancy programme.
So far, where we have reduced the number of posts, this has been done largely through natural wastage with staff choosing to leave to work elsewhere, taking early retirement or asking for voluntary redundancy. We intend to continue with this approach.
It is an exciting time and there is a great deal of work to do on this innovative project over the next few years.
Above all, we want to make sure we get the best possible outcome for our residents and for our staff.
Our successful achievements so far have come from being evolutionary rather than revolutionary and that’s how we intend to continue.