The Autumn statement at the end of 2010 revealed a reduction in South Staffordshire Council’s local government grant of 35% - one of the highest cuts across the public sector.
Our transformation delivery plan sought to meet this challenge head on, with initial targeted savings of £2.2m over the four years 2011-2015 from a total service expenditure of just £11.4m. In basic terms, this meant £1 in every £5 spent had to be saved, no mean feat for a small council.
We didn’t just want to make savings, we wanted to create a stronger, more efficient and more customer-driven organisation. From the very start we were relentless in our drive to create savings; although it was a four-year plan, we realised that rather than do things piecemeal over four years, we would identify as many savings as we could early on, and implement them as soon as we could.
The plan itself concentrated on reducing payroll, increased income, sharing services, increasing efficiency, reducing spend on contracts and procurement, and challenging service managers to make savings.
We made sweeping changes through flexible working, while voluntary redundancies protected front line staff but reduced the number of middle managers to create a leaner, more efficient and cost effective workforce.
The council also engaged in a programme of partnership arrangements, sharing resources with other councils to make services represent better value for money but not reduce any of their effectiveness.
Now, South Staffordshire Council’s audit function is shared with Lichfield DC, communications are shared with Staffordshire CC, while building control and pest control are shared with Stafford BC. Third sector organisations have also been protected and utilised more in the provision of services, meaning a total of £60,000 could be saved.
Closer managing of contracts, smarter procurement procedures and robustly challenging the effectiveness of existing contracts has resulted in significant savings. Driving efficiency opportunities and better negotiation of new rates and contract terms meant we could save over £500,000.
These savings were not solely at the discretion of senior leadership or cabinet members. Staff were constantly challenged to do things differently and think of new ways of operating. A regular corporate service challenge process, where senior staff members were challenged ‘line by line’ to make savings yielded an unprecedented £388,000 in two years, against a four year target of £250,000.
We ‘closed down’ the transformation delivery plan in November 2012, achieving 108% of the final target. This achievement however, does not mean we are resting on our laurels. It is likely the council will be required to make still more savings, and although we are not undergoing a formal process, we are still asking officers to be innovative in their approach and see what further savings can be made. We want to ensure South Staffordshire Council continues to be in a sound financial position, ready to meet any future challenges head on.
It’s true that every council has had to make savings, and for district councils in particular this can have certain challenges. However, it’s not impossible.
By recognising that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, challenging working practices, sharing more resources and working with other organisations to find different ways of providing services, we’ve continued to provide a full range of services and not lose sight of the essential services that local people rely on.
South Staffordshire Council is now in an excellent position to meet the future demands on local government, and can also reassure residents that their local council is lean, customer focussed, efficient and offers great value for money.
Steve Winterflood is chief executive of South Staffordshire Council