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.

LGN & LocalGov Newsletter – More cuts to come

23 October 2012
Council leaders warn further cuts ‘certain’
James Evison

Further council cuts are ‘absolutely certain’, local authority leaders in the north of England have warned.
The news comes ahead of the end of the local government grant settlement next March, with the Government currently consulting on new financing arrangements beyond April 2013.
Local authorities are due to discover the settlement in December, but it is widely anticipated that a further two years of spending cuts will be required for council budgets.
Preston Council deputy leader, Cllr John Swindells, claimed the council have ‘probably cut as close to the bone as we can’ – and any further savings will result in services being affected ‘deeply’.
Durham CC leader, Simon Henig, echoed the statement, claiming the impact on vulnerable people and care budgets was ‘accelerating’ as a result of the budget cuts, and had to find in excess of £40m for the next few years.
North Yorkshire also has to find budget cuts of more than £48m having already implemented plans for a £69m reduction in costs at the beginning of this year.
The Local Government Association is warning local authorities will only be able to provide basic services at the end of the decade should the budget shortfall continue – and local authorities would end up £26.5bn in the red.
Last week Lewisham LBC mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, said it could ‘get a whole lot worse’ following an announcement the local authority planned £28.3m in cuts from next April.

your comments

Interesting to read the MJ article a few lines down, “Councils are failing to make ?fair? payments to care home operators…”. Cutting funding to the public sector is cutting business in the private sector too. That golden thread may take time for the Treasury to understand.
Dominic Macdonald-WALLACE, Shared Service Architecture Ltd, Added: Tuesday, 23 October 2012 01:11 PM

What is certain is that these cuts to funding are designed directly to force the destruction of jobs and services and is part of a plan to destroy the concept that there is such an entity as society. It is clear that the destruction of the public sector is priority number one. The future for ex public sector workers is workfare or McDonalds, since the Government clearly wants low paid low cost workers not what we currently have. I would suggest that the pain to come has been underestimated.
David Hambly, Added: Tuesday, 23 October 2012 11:08 AM

I’d like to be in America!

I’d like to be in America, everything’s ‘private’ in America……..

Excuse my shameless abuse of the words of the song, but it seems to be appropriate to the thinking of Bury Borough Council.  See Independent article link below.  It makes very interesting reading for all of us in local government, as do some of the readers’ comments below it.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/bury-privatising-public-services-2255631.html

Hiving everything public off to the private sector and repatriating the business rates to ‘free’ local government from the central grant system, has a very American feel to it – and not in a good way.

I continue to be disappointed that the existing local government machine cannot figure out how to more closely align itself to the way the private sector does business, so as to survive the turmoil that is being imposed on it by central government cuts.

Obviously part of it will be about the terms and conditions that have become so favourable in local government in recent years, compared to the private sector.  It may be that we need to go through this ‘destructive’ phase in local government, in order for those who continue to defend this model to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ as they say. 

However, we also need to consider if it might only possible to recruit people with a public service ethic, when you make the pay and conditions more favourable that they are in the private sector.  I suppose the Holy Grail for this aspect is the volunteer, that extraordinary person who is not only driven by a need to help others, but is also willing to do it for nothing!  The alternative to this ideal, is that you accept the profit driven model and along with it the potential for a somewhat different attitude to public/customer service.  

The problem with culling from local government all those who joined because they saw public service as a noble cause and replacing them with those whose only gaol is the bottom line, is that it is then almost impossible to go back to the good old days.  There has been some talk of the John Lewis model working in local government, but this still requires employee buy-in based on profit sharing and would still need those currently in local government to accept, initially at least, reduced pay and conditions of service.

Even more worrying for local taxpayers, is the spectre of continued and increasing conflict between central and local government, as more councils change colour from blue (and the occasional yellow) to outraged red.

I’m having a colour crisis!

There’s an advertisement running in cinemas at the moment, for Orange mobile phones, that has relevance to the way I’m seeing my politics at the moment.  The advert has an animated parrot in it that starts off blue and is then turned orange by the off screen voice that’s controlling things.

My emerging association with this piece of imagery comes about because of statements from ‘call me Dave’, about how he’s going to revolutionise local government (for revolutionise read, kick the guts out of it) and the words of caution from Nick Clegg in today’s Daily Telegraph.

In other words, my Tory blue, whilst not quite turning into LibDem orange, is definitely feeling a bit on the pale side at the moment.  Nick Clegg has gone on the record today, saying about Dave’s latest idea for privatised policing, “Replacing a public monopoly with a private monopoly achieves nothing but reduced accountability” – I wish I’d said that.  All that education hasn’t been wasted after all.  Seriously and somewhat annoyingly, I find myself in agreement with Nick Clegg’s views on this, hence my colour clash.

It may seem somewhat simplistic on my part, but I still cannot see how a shift from an organisation that only has one goal – delivering services, to one that has making a profit by delivering public services, is a sound way forward.  As Gordon Brown once said, I agree with Nick!