The connection and relationships between boroughs is changing as they seek savings and better services. Mark Smulian reports
Time was when every London borough had one of everything. Each had a department to deliver each service, headed by a director who reported to a chief executive, whose role directly concerned only their borough.
Financial pressures that grew before the recession and intensified since have seen this model change radically in many parts of the country, but until recently London boroughs had not taken the more radical steps seen elsewhere.
Plenty of them shared services, but full integration had yet to come.
It has now. Richmond-upon-Thames (pictured) and Wandsworth LBCs in January announced a tie-up under which they will share a single staffing structure by 2017, a move intended to save up to £10m a year.
This was a rapid marriage, coming only weeks after Richmond aborted talks over a shared services deal with Kingston-upon-Thames RBC, citing an unwillingness by the latter to share a chief executive.
Wandsworth chief executive Paul Martin is to head both boroughs after Richmond chief executive Gillian Norton retires next year, with his deputy being Mark Maidment, Richmond’s director of finance and corporate services.
This will not stop Richmond’s existing sharing in the South London Legal Partnership, with Merton and Sutton LBCs and Kingston, which is designed to give each member access to a wider pool of legal skills than they could afford individually, so saving them money on using costly external lawyers. This shows perhaps how complex multi-way sharing could become.
Professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics Greater London Group, thinks this may be the shape of things to come: “Although the London boroughs are large in population by international local government standards, they are geographically small and their areas are alike, so it’s quite easy to see how they might share services more.
“I think councillors will be concerned that the democratic structure still looks the same and that they retain the same degree of control over services that they would have had were they proving them themselves,” he adds.
Both councils are adamant sharing will not compromise their status as separate political entities and that citizens will still identify with their borough and not feel they are in ‘Richworth’ or ‘Wandsmond’, for example.
Richmond and Wandsworth have Conservative political control and share a boundary. But at the other end of London, minority-Conservative Havering LBC and staunchly Labour - and unadjacent - Newham LBC also share services.
This arrangement is less elaborate in that they don’t share everything but is still designed to save some £40m between 2013-14 and 2018-19.
Services deemed ‘frontline’, such as social care, street-cleaning and education, remain under each council’s control but they share 21 other services.
Havering’s leader Roger Ramsey (Con) says: “Havering and Newham at first don’t seem to be the likeliest of shared services - we are different political colours, don’t share a common boundary and don’t have the same political system.
“But what we share is a commitment to protect our services that our residents value the most and by sharing our support services we can drive down costs while still protecting these.
“We demonstrated through our IT partnership that this could work and bringing together our wider support services was a natural progression.”
The ‘Tri-borough’ arrangement is a different model again. It was originally set up in 2010 when Hammersmith & Fulham LBC, Kensington & Chelsea RBC and Westminster City Council were all Conservative-controlled to share back office services and management in children’s services, adult social care, libraries and public health. The former two also shared environment, leisure, transport and technical services.
A change to Labour at Hammersmith & Fulham in May 2014 brought a review of Tri-borough from the former transport secretary Lord Adonis, who recommended the council should cease to share a chief executive with Kensington & Chelsea.
He said Tri-borough should be retained but opened up so that other councils could reap economies of scale by sharing with the original three partners.
Mid-March saw potentially the most radical move yet to joint working, with multiple boroughs in the capital’s north east saying they would seek devolved powers from the government across the sub-regional area covering skills, employment services, transport planning and house building.
The councils also want powers individually on town centre regulation - for example, controlling the proliferation of hot food takeaways - and over failing or ‘coasting’ schools.
This venture involves Barking & Dagenham, Enfield, Havering, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest LBCs, and Greenwich RBC, the only participant from south of the River Thames.
Professor Travers says: “This would be something new, devolution to a sub-city region.
“City regions elsewhere are working out how the governance of such arrangements will be made to work and I think they would have to do the same were this to go ahead.”
While the map of London’s boroughs that we have become familiar with over the past 50 years is unlikely to change, what’s clear is the connection and relationships between the boroughs is changing out of all recognition.
London’s boundaries will no longer represent sealed units, and we will see multiple interactions across them as councils seek savings and better services.
The move to increased service collaboration
London local government has long recognised how permeable the boundaries of its 33 councils are. It is not unusual for someone in London to wake up in one borough, go to school or work in another and travel through a number of other council areas as part of their daily experience.
These patterns do not detract from the sense of boroughs as individual places, with their own sense of themselves and their communities. But the churn does help to explain a range of London policy and service arrangements that reflect at least three distinct levels - individual localities, groupings of boroughs and London as a whole.
As Mark Smulian highlights opposite, joint endeavours of varying types and configurations are an intrinsic part of London’s governance and service character. They reflect the nature of the city.
Boroughs are increasingly collaborating to share services and activities to drive down costs. Sometimes, boroughs collaborate at the level of all 33 of its councils. London Councils’ work in providing the Freedom Pass for elderly and disabled Londoners, or pioneering a Pensions Collective Investment Vehicle - currently with 31 members - are examples of that.
Boroughs are also increasingly collaborating on the broader agenda of public service reform and economic growth.
The London Growth Deal, negotiated with government in 2014, provided for pilot schemes among groupings of councils in central and west London. These are an important part of London local government being able to demonstrate it should have a far bigger role in commissioning the successor arrangements to the Work Programme in London.
Equally, as London inches towards getting greater say over the commissioning of adult skills, it will be to groupings of councils, representing the footprint of distinct economic geographies, that the London Enterprise Partnership will need to turn to.
Two things remain critical in this overall picture. One is that what boroughs bring to public services - whether individually or in groups - including local intelligence, accountability, the ability to wrap services around individuals with complex dependency and the capacity to integrate in a way that helps manage demand and cost down, continues to be critically important. The financial climate of the next five years makes that certain.
The other, as the mayor of London and chair of London Councils point out at the beginning of this supplement, is this sort of settlement needs a London government response that brings together the executive leadership of both tiers of its governance.
Whatever ideas people may have about configuring London’s governance going forward, the reality of serving a diverse population, which is likely to top nine million by 2020, is that the mixture of the local, sub-regional and pan London will continue to feature in way that is vitally important to London’s future.
John O’Brien, chief executive, London Councils