Council restructuring is back en vogue raising the prospect of fewer councils, larger in size. This potentially runs the risk of local government moving further away from its residents.
However, in the East Midlands one miniature unitary with a population of just 38,000 is celebrating its 21st birthday, confident that its proximity to its inhabitants and staff gives it something often lost in the push for economies of scale elsewhere.
In an LGC visit timed to coincide with Rutland CC’s coming of age milestone, council chief executive Helen Briggs explains the authority’s small sizes means staff know their local community.
“In services such as social care and health, and children’s services, the cohort of people that we’re dealing with we get to know really well and that’s such a real advantage in terms of the personalisation agenda,” she says.
“It seems to me that local government has been trying for a long, long time to get closer to its customers and we are achieving that.”
Ms Briggs says she and leader Oliver Hemsley (Con) are recognisable figures locally.
“If either of us are out and about in the community, the community know who we are. That’s part of why I wanted to come and work in Rutland so I could be the right mix between strategic and operational and also visible to the community.
“I go to Tesco and I get stopped by people who know me and want to talk about things about the county.”
She describes the argument in support of economies of scale through larger councils as a “red herring” locally, insisting shared services brought them about without full restructuring.
Peterborough City Council provides some environmental health services, while the council shares a places director with South Kesteven DC and a director of public health with Leicestershire CC. Out-of-hours services in adults and children’s services are provided either by Leicestershire or Leicester City Council.
“We get all the advantages of being small and work hard to avoid the disadvantages of being small – i.e. high cost.”
Ms Briggs insists that the council’s unit and per capita costs were low, although “that doesn’t mean cheap because we also deliver good services.”. Indeed, she says her county was in the top four nationwide in terms of highest council tax bills.
“That’s nothing to do with what you spend the money on; that’s a historical feature of the way local government funding has evolved over the years,” she says.
“Some of the price of independence when we became a new unitary was inevitably that the council tax was higher as a consequence. Some of our community understand that and are happy to pay that price.
“They like the fact that services are localised to them. They like the fact they can… get a service which is absolutely Rutland centric.”
Ms Briggs says she believes the county is sustainable, with its officers and members “working hard” to close a gap on its medium-term financial plan. The council, which has a net revenue budget of £35.8m in 2018-19, plans to save £1.3m this year and has warned of a combined shortfall of £4.26m over the three years from 2020-21 to 2022-23. Demand management and income generation rather than “slash and burn” would be the answer, she insists.
She says Rutland “looks with interest” at the restructuring debate in its former top-tier county of Leicestershire, but queries whether an evidence base exists for the move.
Ms Briggs adds: “If, from above, the proposal was to come forward in terms of local government reorganisation, clearly we would have to be part of that discussion.”
However, she insists Rutland does not look solely to its former county, with which it has a relationship on blue light services, health and social care. “Our economic geography points east”, towards Peterborough and Cambridgeshire, she says.
For now the priority is, “how do we become self-sustaining, embracing growth but in a way which is right for Rutland?”.
Ms Briggs gives an example of this. The council is working with the Ministry of Defence to turn its St George’s Barracks site, due to close in 2021, as a 3,000-home garden village. This will help “rebalance” its demographics and bring in “more younger families”.
Another means of maintaining a lasting income is the Oakham Enterprise Park, a former prison whose buildings have been adapted to locate SMEs. This has brought jobs to the local economy, as well as providing Rutland with a rental income and increased business rate receipts.
Ms Briggs said projects such as St George’s led to national interest in the county, which had hitherto been regarded as a “little bit below the radar”.
“The word is getting out there that we’re doing some things in a very different way. The culture in the organisation is one that embraces change, that provides the right climate within a safe environment for officers right across the council to deliver change – in some instances incrementally, some of it is marginal gain but some is actually a step change.”
She named social work and social care staff as particularly benefiting from Rutland’s small scale.
“They see the huge benefits of coming to work for a small authority because they can get a massive amount of experience in areas whereas if they went a larger authority they would be compartmentalised.”
However, this did have a significant drawback for Rutland: “They come here, they like working for us, they gain a huge amount of experience and they become very marketable.”