Machetes in hand and pith helmets on their heads, four pathfinders have been trying for the past year to hack a way through the local government jungle towards a place where two-tier councils can survive and thrive.
Their work has been obscured amid the clamour of indignation and threats of legal action around the unitary reorganisations in 10 counties. Indeed, some may doubt the point of it, given that the government seems enthusiastic about unitary councils, as do most county chief executives, according to an LGC poll (LGC, 21 August).
Those who want to keep the two-tier system which now survives in only 24 English counties need to demonstrate to the government and local taxpayers that they can be as efficient as their unitary counterparts and deliver services of at least equal quality.
The four pathfinders went little noticed when they were launched by local government minister John Healey in August 2007, and have largely stayed that way. But they have been beavering away quietly. Now they think they may have a role in forging a two-tier future.
The four pathfinders were set up without any special legal powers or extra money, although the government gave a nod that it would look favourably on any request for freedoms and flexibilities that ministers could grant without new legislation.
Pathfinder bids to regional improvement and efficiency partnerships are similarly smiled upon, but not guaranteed.
Marianne Abley, the Improvement & Development Agency regional associate for the south-east, who has been working with the pathfinders, says they are “trailblazers and are defining their own outcomes”. “As the approach is evolutionary each will look different to get better outcomes for people and deliver better services in a locally led model,” she says.
“Financial pressure reinforces the message and case for collaboration within this new era of devolution and innovation. The pathfinders are relevant to the whole sector.”
Not everyone agrees. Alan Sherwell (Lib Dem), chair of the District Sounding Board, argues that the creation of pathfinders can make collaboration more difficult.
“I’m an Aylesbury Vale DC councillor and we have been working with South Oxfordshire and Cherwell DCs on rural housing because we have a common interest, even though they are in Oxfordshire, and with South Northamptonshire on economic development,” he says.
“That has arisen naturally, but as soon as you have a pathfinder you have boundaries round it, and a bureaucracy and governance structure created with people arguing about who is in charge of what.”
Although a wide range of work has come into pathfinders, they have tended to focus on shared back-office services an obvious if useful target for efficiency savings.
Their collaborations have, though, gone beyond seeking savings. Community engagement has emerged as a priority for all four. This includes piloting single contact points for the public sector, links with parishes and experiments on consultation.
According to the IDeA’s Ms Abley, the key lessons so far are that good partnerships tolerate differences and debate, and that it is advisable to avoid politically controversial areas apart from Hertfordshire the pathfinders areas are, though, almost entirely Conservative.
Pathfinders should also share intelligence on operational models and legal barriers, as well as making extensive savings to entice neighbouring councils to join in.
Hertfordshire pathfinder director Helen Style says that their low profile is explained by the fact that “it’s taken a year to take stock and work out details of the programme”.
She says that in Hertfordshire’s case, joint working on children has come about because, while the county council has a legal duty for children’s well-being, the districts provide many relevant services which it has been important to join up.
Hertfordshire is also looking to combined procurement for waste collection and disposal, services historically split between multiple-district collection contracts and a single-county disposal one.
Two tiers must succeed, Ms Style argues: “With a place the size and population of Hertfordshire, with no obvious centre, it would be difficult to make a unitary council work.”
Peter Hale, Lincolnshire CC’s head of strategy and development, says its two most advanced projects, in legal services and procurement, have been designed in a way “that recognises that the timing does not suit everyone to come on board at once and they can join in as they choose, because there are issues of culture and politics”.
Mr Hale says pathfinder status has not meant the Lincolnshire councils have done anything they could not have done anyway. But it has meant “we have a mission to work together”.
This spur to collaboration is also apparent in Dorset, says the county council’s corporate policy officer Dugald Lockhart. “If people embrace shared services and joint leadership in the area that will lead to single strategic leadership for single-service needs,” he says.
Nick Cave, Buckinghamshire CC’s partnership director, says the county’s councils rejected a unitary bid. Instead, he says, the authorities have “a vision of an integrated Buckinghamshire, which retains the sovereignty of the districts but gains all the efficiencies and improvements you would expect from a unitary structure”.
He adds: “The advantage of this approach is that it retains the individual councils and there is an opportunity for districts to influence what happens in their areas without being lost in a large organisation that dominates everything.”
This autumn should see a number of the procurement exercises on back-office services and waste come to fruition. Next year, the pathfinders should start to fashion some weapons with which those committed to two tiers can repel the unitary onslaught.