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Portfolio Local Government Shared services

Finding partners

Kate Shannon Local Government Correspondent

Another council has backed out of Scotland’s largest shared service project, amid fears the plans are not in the best interests of its people. So what does the future hold for shared service partnerships?

Te Clyde Valley project is the most ambitious of its kind in Scotland: eight councils, with a joint budget of £6.5bn, together serving over a third of the Scottish population, started down the shared services route, united by the belief that services could be delivered better and more efficiently by working more closely together. Now, the project is looking decidedly wobbly.

One council, South Lanarkshire, decided to pull out. Following publication of a detailed business

Beyond the headlines

Reducing council numbers

Another week, another opinion on public sector reform. But this time it comes from the movers and shakers within our councils and it makes interesting reading. According to a new poll, almost 40 per cent of

council chief executives and directors of finance surveyed think the number of councils in Scotland should be reduced from the current 32, with 25 per cent in favour of Scotland having just 16 local authorities. The poll was carried out for business and financial advisers Grant Thornton.

case, another authority, West Dunbartonshire, followed suit. Te remainder must now decide whether or not to press ahead to share services such as IT and human resources. If the business case is agreed, the new shared service will operate as a public body owned by the participating councils and a management team will be appointed to manage the transfer of services.

Tose who stay in the game do so in the

knowledge that the projected savings will be more modest than those originally forecast, because fewer councils mean fewer economies of scale. Te risk is that the whole project loses momentum, and acts as a brake on the development of shared services across Scotland. Leader of West Dunbartonshire Council, Councillor Ronnie McColl, said the decision not to accept the proposals was unanimous and after examining the plans, councillors were left with “unanswered questions”. Te sheer size of the project also proved a concern, as did the fear that jobs would be transferred out of the area. Cllr McColl said: “You have seven councils with seven very different sets of terms and conditions for their staff, how do you marry that together? We’ve got a minimum wage, for instance, we have various other terms and conditions which we know some of the other bigger councils don’t have. We just felt that this big thing with seven councils wasn’t for us.” However, West Dunbartonshire has not ruled out sharing services in future. Cllr McColl added: “Nobody is saying we don’t want to do shared services – we realise that

The survey also revealed little evidence of

joint working on a range of services. No council interviewed has shared service or outsourcing arrangements for street cleaning services, yet just over a third of respondents would consider doing so. A third expressed no interest in outsourcing or

collaborating on basic office functions, like payroll. According to Gary Devlin, director at Grant Thornton

Scotland, the support for reform demonstrated through the poll raises specific questions over what is blocking progress. He says: “The survey shows that there is a clear

appetite for structural reform in the local government sector. If senior staff in local authorities believe there is a need for reform, who or what is the barrier to doing this?” Funding is an issue highlighted in the survey,

with 50 per cent of the CEOs and CFOs questioned expecting capital budgets to be reduced next year.

there is a shrinking public purse. But we feel that anything we get into has got to be good for service provision and also take employment into account. “We are the biggest employer by far in West

Dunbartonshire and if we start to leak jobs, it would have an adverse effect. Te biggest risk for me is local accountability – accountability to the communities you are delivering services to.” West Dunbartonshire already boasts a successful partnership with Greater Glasgow Health Board, providing community health and social care services. Cllr McColl said: “We are asking our officers to look for more appropriate shared services that we could be involved in, either with local partnerships, voluntary or private sector, or with a council that is close to us. “I don’t rule out sharing some sort of service with one or two councils but I think trying to do it with seven in such a large geographical area would need a very good offer to make it attractive to the smaller ones.”

Another issue highlighted was the possibility smaller councils could be muscled out of the decision-making process by their larger counterparts. As Cllr McColl said: “A small council like us really wouldn’t have much clout against what the bigger councils would want. Tey have the bulk of the staff, the bulk of where the services are needed and quite rightly, they would look for a bigger say. Tat squeezes local democracy in smaller council areas.” Te remaining six councils will decide whether to accept the proposals in the coming weeks.

However, the perceived risk involved in such big changes may also be too great for the elected officials. Devlin added: “With local authority elections taking

place next May, politicians may understandably be reluctant to engage in potentially risky change management programmes. “Equally, shared service arrangements often

require ‘giving up’ control or jobs in some areas in exchange for efficiency savings, which is unlikely to appeal to local councillors even where large savings are possible. In the absence of any political momentum behind serious reform in our public services, it is currently unclear how local authorities will be able to maintain public service provision with fewer resources. It is not a great leap to suggest that the lack of reform will almost certainly result in poorer or fewer public services and we will all be worse off as a result.”

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