Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Navigating through change

  • Comment

Maintaining service standards and dealing with staff changes are the main challenges of unitary reorganisation.

Even local government veterans might have to think hard before they point on a map to what were Boothferry, Glyndwr, Stewartry and Woodspring councils. They were among those that vanished in the 1990s unitary reorganisation. Soon nearly 40 more councils will join them in the nether world inhabited by dead local authorities as the latest reorganisation takes effect next year.

Another 25 could be off to the knacker’s yard depending on the outcome of unitary reviews in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. So how are councils coping with the wide-ranging upheaval such a fundamental reorganisation creates?

Efficiency goal

The government’s justification for the latest unitary reorganisation is efficiency. The most sulphurous rows over reorganisation such as that between Bedford BC elected mayor Frank Branston (Ind) and the powers that be at Bedfordshire CC have ended. Now officers and councillors are trying to ensure council operations run smoothly during the upheaval.

In theory, only chief executives need worry about their position, since the government has said these posts should be filled by open competition. That may also apply to some senior posts, since there can be only, say, one planning director in a unitary. Staff have been assured that terms similar to the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 will safeguard their pay and conditions, according to guidance issued by local government minister John Healey.

Even so, Unison has warned against reorganisation being used as cover for staff cuts. With so much of the justification resting on efficiency savings it would be unsurprising were workforces to reduce.

'Worrying times'

These will be worrying times therefore for the staff of doomed councils, but managements hope to keep the show on the road and not lose key staff who, to avoid the inevitable uncertainty, may jump ship before their council is abolished.

Mark Lawrie, a partner in consultant Deloitte’s local and regional government practice, is advising a number of councils on transition. He sees the challenge in Churchillian terms. “It’s like having a war cabinet,” he says. “When you are on such a tight timetable to deliver such major change the normal procedures used to protect the public interest and ensure probity cannot apply. I’m not saying you should scrap them entirely, but if you have a year to deliver so many major decisions every day you cannot have a normal process of cabinet and scrutiny or it would probably take about four years. You cannot keep everyone happy.”

Mr Lawrie admits some staff will “vote with their feet because of the uncertainty”. But he adds as reorganisational plans firm up staff are more likely to buy into them and stay.

It is not just senior staff who fall into that category. Mr Lawrie points out that front-line staff have skills and pay levels that make it relatively easy for them to move. “Revenue and benefits staff could move into banking, and it may be more difficult to keep them than people at higher pay levels”, he says.

These might be good times for interim managers, he suggests, as councils try to ensure that services do not suffer while, in effect, carrying out a large and disruptive one-off project.

“The danger is that service standards suffer if local authorities divert capacity as they may not think enough about day-to-day services,” Mr Lawrie says. “But being aware of that risk is half the battle.”

Wear Valley DC, which will become part of the new Durham council, was aware of this danger and took the unusual approach of seeking a new comprehensive performance assessment (CPA) from the Audit Commission in its final year. It expects its ‘fair’ rating of 2003 to be replaced by ‘excellent’.

Interim chief executive Michael Lane, who left in early May to become chief executive at Gateshead Council, recalls the approach taken by his ex-leader Neil Stonehouse (Lab). “(He) said if Wear Valley was going it would go with its head held high and that reorganisation would not stop us from improving.”

Mr Lane says the reassessment has meant “staff have been focused on the CPA review, and we wanted something other than reorganisation for them to concentrate on”.

There was another motive to impress the commission. “Staff knew that performing well in the CPA would help them get good jobs in the new authority,” he says.

Councils across the new Durham have a joint implementation team and have agreed a common approach to sending information to staff and the public. This team is yet to detail what services will be at local level, “but they are very sensitive to the needs of the rural areas as being different from the industrial ones,” Mr Lane says.

Vale Royal BC falls within Cheshire West & Chester under the division of the old county into two new unitaries. Chief executive Anne Bingham-Holmes says: “In Cheshire, we’ve been working as a family of authorities. Making sure employees are kept informed of developments continues to be a key priority across the councils.”

Cheshire councils have used intranets, staff magazines, presentations, briefings and bulletins to pass information to staff and to find out what they think. There has been a popular online service, which tries to answer enquiries such as “is my job safe?” and “where will I be based?”

Apart from those involved, the people watching the current bout of unitary re-organisations most anxiously will be officers in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk who faced a similar upheaval on boundaries that will not be known until the Boundary Committee for England reports next month.

Mid Suffolk DC chief executive Andrew Good says: “There have not yet been people leaving because for the vast majority it is too early to get worried. So far this is only really worrying senior officers and councillors.

“After the committee reports we enter a slightly different area where people will be interested to see whether the opportunities offered are good for their career or not.”

Only then might the council consider the need for golden handcuffs. Poaching by neighbours is unlikely since they are all being reviewed, though Mr Good says: “It’s possible people might look to jobs in Essex, which is not being reorganised. Reorganisation ought to bring as many opportunities as it brings risks.”

Local government underwent a fundamental reorganisation in 1974 and another, in many areas, in the mid-1990s. Few would bet money that this round will be the last.

Coping with transition in Northumberland

Local government reorganisation in Northumberland will create a single council covering the same boundaries as the existing county council, but resulting in the disappearance of all the county’s districts.

Bill Batey, chief executive of Alnwick DC, says some of his previously very settled staff have left because of the uncertainty but this “has not been a major trend”.

Tynedale DC courted controversy last year with a ‘golden handcuffs’ deal for some senior staff, but Alnwick has seen no need. Mr Batey says: “I think the TUPE-style deal has reassured staff, but they want to know about office locations and what is proposed in the new structure.”

Northumberland councils have put a protocol in place to govern how jobs that fall vacant in the coming year are filled. “There is a common approach, either by sharing staff between councils or through a temporary appointment, and we would not look to fill any vacancy now on a permanent basis,” Mr Batey says.

“As we go down to next year there will be greater challenges. As of now there is a degree of uncertainty and that presents a challenge within any reorganisation, but once the new council is established and senior appointments are sorted that should give some stability.”

One crucial unknown in Alnwick’s case is how Northumberland’s new sub-county level ‘belonging communities’ will function.

Alnwick will form one with its neighbour Berwick-upon-Tweed BC and although development control and local scrutiny will rest with these bodies, the rest is unclear. “We need to consult on how those will work, and the final structure of the new council,” Mr Batey says.

The councils have formed an implementation executive which requests for spending go to. This means the districts can keep live projects going, though not start on anything big in their final year.

Mr Batey says: “One example would be that we all have level two in the equality standard, but there is no point in trying to progress to level three until the new council’s priorities are clear.”

Unitary reorganisation

Bedfordshire

Bedford BC to become a unitary. Mid Bedfordshire DC and South Bedfordshire DC to form Central Bedfordshire unitary

Cheshire

Split into Cheshire East, and Cheshire West & Chester, respectively, covering all former councils in these areas. Shadow councils elected in May

Cornwall

One council for whole county

Devon

Undergoing review by Boundary Committee for England, options due in June

Durham

One council for whole county, shadow council elected this May

Norfolk

Undergoing review by Boundary Committee for England, options due in June

Northumberland

One council covering whole county. Shadow council elected this May

Shropshire

One council for whole county

Suffolk

Undergoing review by Boundary Committee for England, options due in June

Wiltshire

One council for whole county

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.