Bracknell Forest is a consistently high-performing small unitary authority located in Berkshire, some 30 miles west of London.
With a population of just 115,000, it has the third-lowest council tax levels of any mainland unitary, while well over 40% of its key performance indicators are regularly placed in the best quartile nationally.
Although the recent trend in rural areas has been towards replacing two-tier structures with large county unitaries, the experience of Bracknell Forest represents a convincing argument in favour of creating small unitaries from former districts.
Being small can facilitate better tailored and more responsive local services
As an authority with both a small population and a small staff, Bracknell Forest is close to its community.
While all good authorities have a strong theoretical knowledge of their areas’ needs, Bracknell Forest members and officers can evidence a detailed and nuanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their area, based on their personal interaction with residents.
As well as encouraging a flexible and agile response to issues as they arise, this detailed personal knowledge underpins the development of a set of robust strategic priorities which genuinely help the organisation to focus on what matters most.
Within the council, the fact that corporate priorities flow directly from departments’ knowledge and understanding produces a clear sense of ownership, but because everyone is fully signed up to the same set of objectives, it also encourages people to come out of their silos to find innovative joint solutions to cross-cutting problems.
In addition, Bracknell Forest’s small scale acts both to necessitate and to facilitate effective partnership working between local agencies and service providers, often based on personal relationships between professionals whose local knowledge also feeds into the LSP’s overarching priorities.
In social care, for instance, intrinsic drawbacks to the area’s small size are more than overcome using effective commissioning and a large number of successful joint teams and services.
The small size of an authority is thus no barrier to good, cost-effective services. As is demonstrated in Bracknell Forest, being small can facilitate better tailored and more responsive local services while also driving innovative approaches to working across boundaries to improve provision and reduce costs.
Paul Bettison (Con), leader, Bracknell Forest BC