Neil Merrick 20 March 2019

Redefining the shape of local government

Within a few weeks, there will be fewer district councils in Suffolk. Mergers to create the new authorities of East Suffolk and West Suffolk from four existing districts were approved by the Government last year.

Both will start operating from April 1, with voters electing councillors to the newly created authorities one month later. The councils involved have spent months, and to some extent years, preparing for merger by sharing services and senior officers.

But how can they be certain that residents know what is happening and accept the case for change before they step into the polling booth on May 2?

To some extent, the biggest change is in East Suffolk, formed from the merger of Suffolk Coastal and Waveney. A reduction in councillors from 90 to 55 led to major changes in some wards. In future, councillors will represent an average of 3,670 electors, compared to about 2,000 at present.

Stephen Baker, who has been joint chief executive of the existing councils for more than 10 years, says the cut will mean fewer backbench councillors have limited roles and feel disengaged from the running of the council. ‘It will make for a modern and streamlined authority,’ he adds.

Within the community, explains Baker, residents are generally aware that the two councils have been working closely together for the past decade. ‘That’s a strong bedrock from which we can work,’ he says. But that does not mean some people won’t need further reminding of the merger.

The councils have shared a website and social media for the past two years. An explanatory note is being included in council tax bills going out this month. ‘We’ve ramped up communications about us working together in partnership,’ says Baker. ‘People are aware that East Suffolk is coming as a local authority.’

The road to merger for Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury, soon to become West Suffolk, started soon after Ian Gallin became joint chief executive in 2012. But it was not until 2017, long after the councils had brought together service departments, that the authorities agreed to go for full merger.

Residents, says Gallin, are already used to seeing the West Suffolk logo on refuge lorries, council tax bills and elsewhere. The two authorities have shared a website and corporate brand for seven years, so the merger should not come as much of a shock. ‘The hospital is West Suffolk Hospital. The college is West Suffolk College,’ he says. ‘A majority of people thought we’d already done it.’

During consultations, some residents in all four districts thought the merged councils were already in place. But that did not stop one in five people in soon-to-become West Suffolk saying they were against formal merger, with concerns over political accountability and centralisation of power.

The reduction of councillors in West Suffolk is less severe, from 72 to 64, with fewer ward changes. Fears that everything will be focussed on Bury St Edmunds, part of St Edmundsbury, are also misplaced, says Gallin.

Council offices will remain open in three other locations, with a possibility that council meetings may switch between Bury St Edmunds and Mildenhall, part of Forest Heath, once a new building (part of a school) is opened in Mildenhall.

‘People will receive the same services wherever they walk in,’ he adds.

Suffolk is not the only part of England facing local government reorganisation this spring. In Dorset, two unitary authorities are being created from nine existing councils, including six districts that will subsequently disappear.

In Somerset, Taunton Deane and West Somerset are joining forces to become a new district council. The creation of Somerset West and Taunton is more of a shotgun marriage, brought about by the acute financial problems facing West Somerset. James Hassett, who was appointed chief executive of the new authority last November, declined to be interviewed.

Elsewhere, there is also little doubt money, along with capacity, plays a key part in persuading authorities to share services and consider merger. Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, says earlier predictions of a major reduction in district councils proved unfounded, with higher tier authorities generally facing more severe budget issues.

In some cases, districts have more opportunity to raise money through housing and other property-related schemes, says Carr-West. ‘District councils as a sector are looking more financially robust,’ he adds.

A study last year by the Local Government Association found councils were saving about £971m per year through shared services and other partnership arrangements. By becoming West Suffolk, Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury expect to save a further £800,000 per year on top of the £4m saved annually by sharing services. Suffolk Coastal and Waveney forecast that merger will save £1.3m on top of savings of £16m from sharing services. But Stephen Baker stresses the advantages go much further, including recruitment of more specialist and experienced staff.

Council tax for the two local authorities was harmonised prior to merger and is reflected in new bills. ‘For a minority, it may be the first time they’ve heard of East Suffolk, admits Baker. Most signs and vehicles currently display the names of Suffolk Coastal or Waveney and will need to be changed after April 1.

In West Suffolk it will take seven years, based on current projections, for council tax in Forest Heath to reach the same level as St Edmundsbury’s. However, Ian Gallin says this issue was largely neutralised by the fact council tax in Forest Heath would have risen anyway, regardless of merger.

Shadow authorities involving all existing councillors were set up in both East and West Suffolk to agree next year’s budget and council tax, plus other priorities. This means councillors from the different authorities have experience of working together.

Nationally, there is no indication that most councils currently sharing services, and in some cases chief executives, have any wish to merge, but Gallin sees it as a natural step forward.

Years of following virtually identical policies gave the councils the momentum and confidence needed, so that merger was only logical. ‘From very early days, we had a [single] corporate plan,’ he says. ‘There were different projects, but with a single approach and a single agenda.’

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine. Click here to register for your own free copy.

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