West Somerset to become ‘virtual authority’

And so it begins. For those who think elected members should be culled, here’s the answer, just get rid of the council and give it to the private sector!

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
6 December, 2012 | By Ruth Keeling

Minsters have persuaded a council branded ‘unviable’ not to pursue a merger with neighbours and instead becoming a “virtual authority” commissioning services from other providers.

West Somerset DC has rejected LGA advice to commence a boundary review following a meeting with local government minister Brandon Lewis during which he made it clear he believed the authority should continue as a sovereign democratic body.

According to West Somerset’s account of a meeting held last month between Mr Lewis and the council’s chief executive and leader, the ministers endorsed the LGA view that the authority was “not sustainable” in its current structure but insisted there was “no need to engage with the Boundary Commission on the subject of a merger” as advised by the LGA.

He also warned the authority that it should not expect the local government settlement due later this month to solve the council’s problems, the report states.

Mr Lewis was of the “firm belief that the council should be retained as a democratically elected and accountable unit of local government representing the people of West Somerset”, according to West Somerset papers published on Wednesday, a stance in direct contrast to an LGA report published last month which stated “the council is not viable as a unit of local democracy and governance over the long term”.

‘Virtual authority’

Following Mr Lewis’ advice that West Somerset work closely with neighbours and become a commissioning council, a business case is to be drawn up with neighbours to investigate how the council can commission from “other service providers whom would predominantly, but not exclusively, be neighbouring councils”.

Under the fledgling plan the council of 82 full time employees would reduce its workforce further and “only retain a small nucleus staff to manage the commissioning arrangements once in place”.

The report to full council, due to be debated next week, states the council’s existing lack of capacity will “impact on the council’s ability to move forward with the necessary urgency” and, as a result, £25,000 has been set outside to employ outside expertise.

In setting out the objections to other options, the report notes that a boundary review would be unlikely to be completed before elections in May 2015, as recommended by the LGA, and argues that a large council tax increase was a short term solution which would be unlikely to win the support of the electorate in a referendum.

A business case for the move to commissioning is to be drawn up “as soon as possible” with the council’s own risk assessment making it clear that, if no action is taken, it is “possible” the council will be unable to balance next year’s budget. It also states it is “likely” ministers will identify West Somerset “as a failing authority and put intervention measures in place”.

Shared management arrangements with Taunton Deane BC and Sedgemoor DC were investigated in 2010, after an earlier report also questioned the viability of the council, but the proposals were abandoned in early 2011 partly because the cost savings were minimal. Other shared service ventures were pursued, however.

Ministerial advice

The West Somerset papers, which set out in detail the pros and cons of the options available ahead of a full council meeting to be held next week, also reveal that Mr Lewis’ recent advice contradicted advice given by his predecessor Bob Neill.

At a December 2011 meeting with Bob Neill “the advice given at the time was to seek local support for a council tax increase that was above the national threshold or seek a merger with a neighbouring council through the Boundary Commission”, according to West Somerset.

However, a Department for Communities & Local Government spokesman disputed this suggestion.

“It is wrong to suggest government has changed its views. In December the local government minister [Bob Neill] made no proposals for boundary review, he raised concerns over possible council tax increase specifically that government could not countenance large increases and said it would be supportive of a shared service approach,” the spokesman said.

“The important thing is that West Somerset is looking to ensure that they have a sustainable approach to the financing of their council and should be actively looking at the scope for joint working to make sensible savings.”

The report also said the view of the LGA had “seemingly changed” since its report said a boundary review would be necessary in the long term. A spokesman for the LGA said it stood by the advice given in October based on information available at the time, but that it supported West Somerset in pursuing alternative options following discussions with other parties.

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READERS’ COMMENTS (1)

Roger | 8-Dec-2012 12:36 pm
This council is being led down the garden path by this minister, for reasons I cannot currently fathom.
It may be that he is following the Pickles plan of decide and conquer when it comes to this government’s wish to see local government reduced to no more than a parochial puppet of central government. This would also align with this government’s obsession with everything private. Conning this council into becoming no more than a front for a totally outsourced solution, that can then be touted around as the way forward for all councils, is also a possible goal.
Can somebody please explain to me what the role of the elected member is in an organisation where everything is totally contracted out and therefore offers little or no flexibility without throwing more money at the issue? Every complaint would elicit the same answer, sorry, it’s in the contract. I suppose they would only ever need to turn up for the quarterly performance reviews, followed by the annual contract review.

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