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Districts need to find strength in numbers

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With the pressure on for councils to find savings, it’s time for two-tier local government - and districts in particular - to show our worth.

The future of the two-tier system depends upon its ability to adapt and respond to the changing needs and pressures of local government.

District councils are valued because of their responsiveness to the needs of the communities they serve, but we are facing challenging financial pressures.

The capacity to find year-on-year efficiency savings is stretched, and service cuts and a reduction in districts’ capacity to participate in county partnerships will erode their worth unless more imaginative approaches are taken.

Opportunities exist for district councils to work together in order to deliver more for less by achieving significant financial savings whilst maintaining their democratic independence to provide accountable governance of their areas.

Merged service delivery and merged management structures can release savings which can be used to improve front-line services and to enhance capacity. Individual districts can also benefit from increased resilience.

In the future as we examine and collate total spend in the area the ability of a merged governance and management structure to be extended to include all public sector spend in the area is an exciting possibility.

On Lincolnshire’s east coast, three authorities (Boston BC, East Lindsey DC and South Holland DC, aka ‘the Wets’) are already on this journey.

Importantly the county council has been supportive, seeing the benefit of working with a secure partner and this is opening opportunities for the county to strategically influence and effectively partner in areas of planning and economic development.   

Key to the success of our approach has been strong member leadership.

The executive members of the three meet frequently. We are also supported by our regional associate from the Improvement & Development Agency.

He has been a great help in facilitating member meetings and assisting us to clarify our vision and set challenging targets for our chief executives. 

The first and most significant project has been the agreement to design a merged service for back-office and transactional services.

This includes HR; ICT; finance, revenues and benefits; and customer services. We have confidence that such a merger is going to save us well in excess of £2m a year.

For this first tranche of services, agreement on common delivery standards is achievable.

Now portfolio holders from each authority are leading on the merger of other services where an a la carte approach to service standards will enable each authority to respond to its own needs and priorities.

So, for example, if a neighbouring council wants fortnightly bin collections, whereas we want weekly ones, we can both be satisfied.

We expect savings from these services to be delivered in 2010-11. 

The chief executives have also been tasked with establishing a merged senior management structure and their early work has indicated further savings in the order of £2.5m per year from this. 

All this is going to mean a single, but very different staff organisation servicing the different needs of the three districts.

We think it could offer a model for districts across the country.

Gary Porter is leader of South Holland DC and chair of the District Council Network

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