Councils shake-up could save £150m

MORE than £150million is set to be saved if Suffolk's councils stop their turf wars and integrate to modernise services in what is claimed would be “a new dawn” for local government in the county.

By Graham Dines

MORE than £150million is set to be saved if Suffolk's councils stop their turf wars and integrate to modernise services in what is claimed would be “a new dawn” for local government in the county.

The county council and six districts are being urged by their leaders to agree to work together, sharing back office functions such as human resources and IT and joining forces to introduce common procurement and efficiency policies.

However, a super unitary council for Suffolk, which would have brought even bigger savings, is likely to be rejected in favour of the county council and district authorities increasing co-operation to deliver “cheaper and better services” for taxpayers and residents.

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Suffolk County Council and Babergh, Forest Heath, Mid Suffolk, St Edmundsbury, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney districts are being asked to approve a pathfinder project, which has to be submitted to the Government by January 25.

Ipswich is being excluded from the bid because it is making a separate application to break away from two-tier Suffolk to run all its own services as an all-purpose unitary council.

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The final decision on the Suffolk bid rests with the Government but Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly will not give the go-ahead until she has made a decision on Ipswich.

Suffolk's plans - which would allow Ipswich to join if its unitary plea is rejected - propose a single strategic body for the county, comprising county and district council leaders and county councillors holding major service portfolios such as children and young people. This would give districts a say in statutory countywide functions.

The pathfinder bid claims that increased co-operation between councils will produce savings over five years of between £144.3m and £156.3m, which is 6.2% of local government spending in the county.

Of this, efficiency and modernisations savings would account for between £91.1m and £95.1 m and £46.1m from sharing back office functions such as human resources and IT systems.

Other cash would be saved by councils sharing common premises, known as “public service villages” currently proposed for Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft.

In a report to a special meeting of the county council next week, chief executive Mike More says the aim is to implement last year's Government White Paper and create a system of local government which provides strong and visible leadership, becomes more accountable, and transforms public services into greater efficiency and responsiveness through joined-up working.

A wholesale reorganisation of local government, turning Suffolk into one super unitary county - which is being proposed for Durham, Cornwall, and Cumbria - has been rejected by council leaders as “not feasible” in the Government's timescale of submitting applications by January 25.

“Improved two-tier working would be the best model to accommodate Suffolk's diverse communities while also achieving the objectives within the White Paper,” said Mr More.

He added the pathfinder bid fills another of the Government's criteria that the public should no longer be baffled trying to understand which council delivers which service.

The report avoids any mention of staffing implications and union leaders have been told the detail will not be worked out until the go-ahead is given by Mrs Kelly.

County council leader Jeremy Pembroke said: “Suffolk's pathfinder bid heralds a new dawn for local government. Our vision is a model for modern 21st Century government which will give power back to local communities.

“We want to create an efficient and flexible framework which fits the needs of all parts of the county. All the councils in the bid will work to set up a strong strategic body for the county to make sure we build on the quality services we already provide.”

Ray Herring, leader of Suffolk Coastal district council said: “There has been real progress over the past 18 months to improve the way council services are provided in our county. This pathfinder approach could allow us to deliver even better, more efficient and cost effective services to our residents.”

Ipswich council leader Liz Harsant said: “We decided not to be part of the county proposals because a unitary Ipswich will better meet the needs of our residents. We already combine many functions with our Suffolk colleagues but as a unitary we will be able to extend those partnerships beyond the county boundary, enabling us to save even more money.”

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