My colleagues in Norwich, Exeter, and indeed the wider local government community are probably digesting last week’s decision by John Denham, with a mixture of excitement, surprise and, for some, scepticism.
Sceptics, though, might well want to look at how an even smaller unitary council has fared over the past 12 years since a similar decision established Rutland County Council.
Rutland works, it is feasible and small really is beautiful
With a population of 38,000, many could and have argued it cannot be feasible. You would expect me to disagree but careful consideration is required. If there can be too small then surely also a danger of too big?
Since 1 April 1997 Rutland County Council has operated as a Unitary Council providing the full range of Council services.
Our CAA commented “Rutland County Council performs well over all. It is progressing well against all of its priorities and making a good contribution to the quality of life of its residents. Most of its services perform to levels above the national average. The Council’s costs are mostly lower than similar councils.”
You really do have to be different from much bigger councils, with:
- a willingness to embrace an enabling role working in strong partnerships, shared services and innovative contracting arrangements with neighbouring authorities and other agencies; and
- a strong medium term financial framework, implemented flexibly but decisively - making the most of our one site, intimate set up for key decision-takers
What does it mean for our community?
Genuinely local government and local service delivery and genuinely local representation and accountability - Total Place?
Nowhere to hide! Officers and Members are well known in the Community there are no faceless Council Officers - trips up the High Street are real engagement opportunities (a shame we cannot record for CAA purposes) we thrive on it!
It helps that our Community has such a strong sense of place and pride in the County.
However, we need to ensure it isn’t those who shout loudest who drive services. Whilst we have an affluent majority there is a minority for example living in deprivation. We need to focus on the whole community.
We operate a Leader and Cabinet model with no political groups and no whip. 26 Members support a Cabinet, four scrutiny panels and all committees. All members are involved. Our community participate vociferously because they know they can influence!
We know our customers. Size makes that a reality. When we talk about a family or an individual the probability is that everyone around the table knows them. Our community feel they can influence services. They get a ‘local service’ that’s accessible and appropriate.
Our Council tax is high! In part due to legacy issues and the vagaries of government funding formulae but our community feel it is a price worth paying! This year we will deliver our lowest ever Council Tax increase.
I am sure there will always be debate about the right size for Local Government areas. But Rutland works, it is feasible and Small really is Beautiful.
Helen Briggs, chief executive, Rutland Council