Last month, formal approval was granted for the voluntary merger of Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs – setting in motion the creation of the country’s largest district council. Chief executive Stephen Baker reflects on the ingredients of the partnership working which proved the foundation of this move
On Thursday 8 February, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government announced his support for the voluntary merger between Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs.
It was obviously a momentous decision for the two district councils, and for the people of East Suffolk. But our desire to merge was no knee-jerk reaction to a crisis in local government. Instead, it was the next logical step in our decade-long development of a successful strategic partnership.
I became chief executive of Suffolk Coastal DC in 2005, and would become one of the first joint chief executives just three years later. Looking back on it, the decision by both councils to support my appointment was brave and far sighted. They recognised that local government was changing and, if we were to meet the pressures of stretched funding and increased community expectations, we had to change as well.
But my appointment was not part of a long-term masterplan for a merger. It was in response to some very real challenges being experienced by both councils, particularly Waveney which was in some difficulty at the time.
Two years after my appointment, we moved across to a single, shared management team. Both of our organisations also had to make the transition to a joint IT system, which became the enabler for change across the councils and paved the way for our teams to come together.
The approach was successful. Partnership working has resulted in cumulative savings of £22.5m – a significant achievement, when the councils only have a joint annual income in the region of £24m.
We have also been able to reduce our headcount by nearly half – from about 1,350 on 1 April 2008 to just over 730 today. And this has been achieved through ‘natural wastage’, without any compulsory redundancies, and with transfers to newly created partner organisations.
By combining our staff across our service areas, we were able to increase our capacity. However, one of the biggest challenges was getting the communications right, so that we took our staff and elected members with us.
We had to watch out for the ‘organisational detractors’ who were resistant to change anyway, but for whom partnership working was an additional excuse to resist changing the way in which they did things. Something as simple as sharing best practice could become a highly political issue if such individuals could argue they only had to work in that way because that was the way in which the other council worked.
On reflection, I wish we had gathered more evidence of the success of the partnership as we went along – showing how it was improving our capacity, as this is probably the first time this ‘bottom up’ approach to local government reorganisation has come to fruition.
But despite the successes, there were some drawbacks to the partnership approach. Senior managers were attending twice as many council meetings, most of which were in the evenings – which put a lot of pressure on both them and their supporting staff.
It was at that point that merging councils became the next logical step in the partnership. And although it will save some money, it is primarily a strategic response to the challenges we anticipate in our local area in the next few years. We feel we need the resilience of a larger combined council to deal with the many significant issues on our horizon. The new organisation will be the largest district council in the country – serving a quarter of a million people.
There is a lot of work to be done to make East Suffolk Council a reality. We need to look at everything from the constitution to branding and logos. At the same time, we need to review the electoral boundaries, as we are reducing the number of councillors from 90 to 55.
This is challenging enough but I think a lot of the major hurdles will come in the couple of years after the merger, as we are bedding in the new council. The councillors will need to focus on meeting the requirements of their bigger areas as well as on working across East Suffolk.
And we know the rest of the world is not going to stand still while we reorganise. We have a lot on our agenda. For example, off our coast we will soon have the largest single windfarm array in the world. Also on the horizon are plans for a new nuclear power station, Sizewell C, which will be the largest civil engineering project this region has ever seen – and which is taking place in the middle of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
We have role to ensure the community ultimately benefits from the disruption that will be caused by these developments. But we believe that between 25% and 30% of the nation’s electricity will be produced here.
At the Port of Felixstowe we have Britain’s biggest and busiest container port, and one of the largest in Europe. And we are becoming developers and building our first council houses in 20 years. Plus we are in the middle of a multi-million pound redevelopment of our leisure centres.
On top of this, we have a challenging demographic. Currently one in five people in East Suffolk is over 65. By 2027 this will be one in three. There will be a shift in the demand for our services.
We are looking at there being three children or pensioners for every working aged person. There will be 8,000 people in east Suffolk living with dementia. Many of these will be living alone or will be cared for by partners of similar age or children, also of retirement age.
There is also massive disparity between areas. In our deprived areas men die 10 years earlier than in the most affluent areas.
So, as a district, we will see our role within health grow and grow. We believe we have a responsibility to keep people healthy and out of the NHS system. We need to make sure the housing, leisure and all the other support systems are in place to keep people healthy as long as possible.
It is going to be tough. That is why we need to reorganise and get our capacity up to meet these challenges. But we know we also need to maintain close links with our communities – after all, that’s the hallmark of a successful district council.
Stephen Baker, chief executive, East Suffolk Councils