It has been all quiet on the reorganisation front for some time now. What was earlier this year a hot point of contention has since gone off the boil.
However, there remains a few business cases lodged with the communities secretary for the creation of new district councils through the 2016 Cities and Local Government Devolution Act.
Taunton Deane BC and West Somerset DC, whose proposals were acknowledged by communities secretary Sajid Javid prior to the General Election, are keen to form a new district council.
Penny James, the chief executive who leads the councils’ shared management team, is eager to differentiate between council mergers – which have connotations of ‘takeovers or cross-subsidies’ – and the creation of a completely new council. ‘We tried very hard not to use the language of a merger. It’s about a fresh start for a new unit of local governance for the communities we serve.
‘That change of language really changed the dynamic for us. It is not what are we going to change about what we are doing now; rather, if we had a blank sheet of paper, what would we put on it today?’
West Somerset DC has been seen as a basket case authority beset by financial sustainability issues for more than a decade. Following work by the Government, the Local Government Association and all Somerset authorities, the district made a formal approach to Taunton Deane to work together to deliver savings, efficiencies, and resilience.
The two councils have shared a senior management team and services for almost four years. To date, the councils have delivered combined savings of almost £6m.
‘At the moment we are very strong on partnership,’ says Ms James. ‘Two councils, one team. But there are inherent inefficiencies built into having two sets of budgets, two sets of planning policy, two full cabinets etc.
‘Forming a new council will help on efficiency, it will help with policy alignment. We will have one set of corporate objectives, one ambition. We are talking now as a strapline about one council, one team, with members, staff and community all trying to deliver one outcome.’
The two councils are aligned in their vision. They are firmly focused on the growth agenda and the formation of a new council is the backbone of their shared transformation plan, which, if pursued as a single council, is expected to make cashable savings of at least £2.6m annually.
But with such savings on the cards, why stop at just the two councils? ‘We are still up for further partnership working,’ says Ms James. ‘The truth is, because of the financial sustainability piece, we don’t have time to wait. This doesn’t preclude something bigger happening at some future point in time. We are completely open to exploring other partnerships to improve.’ This, she said, included keeping an open mind about a pan-Somerset unitary, providing the appetite was there locally.
Ms James is also hoping to share learning from the experience, should the new council get the go ahead. ‘We have done a tour of the country, looking at what others have done. People have been very gracious with their time and access. We have also gone to non-local government organisations because we are not just trying to compare to others in this sector.
‘We wouldn’t want to say to councils they should go down this road. The answer always depends on local circumstances, but I think we will have something to offer to people in terms of learning.’
For the Government, Ms James says, taking a punt on Taunton Deane and West Somerset is relatively small stakes in return for piloting the 2016 Act. ‘We have two leaders aligned, two teams knitted together, a credible plan and the resources to put it in place.’
Sajid Javid is the only person now sitting between the councils and their vision. But Ms James warns the decision is make or break for the partnership.
‘We do have some concerns about getting the decision quickly because of the underlying sustainability issues for the councils. It is a credible plan with political support from both councils and it covers all the things it should be covering. But if it is not accepted, we are in sticky water.
‘The only reason the section 151 officer is not flying the flag is because we have a plan. If the plan falls through we have a plan B. But that would mean West Somerset is left in an unsustainable position.
‘We want to transform with West Somerset. If that is not possible, Taunton Deane would have to exit the partnership to protect its interests. That would only hasten the decline of West Somerset.’