Local Government and the New Unitary Authorities

Photo looking up at Birmingham city council clock tower and building against a mostly blue sky background

As from April 2009, in a drive to coordinate services and reduce costs, over forty local authorities are due to be replaced by nine unitary councils in Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire.

Unitary status is achieved when one new Council is established to replace two former ‘two tier’ Councils (at county, city, borough or district level) so that a single authority is coordinating and delivering all the services in its area, rather than the responsibilities being divided between two separate bodies.

The Background to Unitary Authorities

This concept is far from new and these latest moves are unlikely to be the last that we hear of such changes in the public sector. In the mid to late 1990s, as part of a round of local government reorganisation that was meant to transform the face of public sector Britain to a greater extent than it actually did, a series of unitary authorities was created but many two tier systems survived.

The Local Government & Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 has since taken up the baton and sets down a new process for enabling changes to local authorities and their related boundaries to take place.

Under the 2007 Act, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has the power to invite or direct local authorities to make proposals regarding a move to single tier status and to request the Boundary Committee to advise alternative suggestions.

The Act also allows the Boundary Committee to carry out its own reviews and to make recommendations, with the aim of increased effectiveness and convenience, in line with the characteristics and interests of local communities. The Boundary Committee is currently carrying out reviews affecting Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon, with the prospect of more new unitary authorities entering the pipeline.

A new unitary authority is a brand new council, starting afresh - not one council ‘taking over’ another. Perhaps, the main challenge for these unitary bodies, as from April 2009, will be to ensure a seamless delivery of services in line with a rationalisation of priorities at the same time as juggling an avalanche of other difficulties, particularly related to staff – some arriving from the two former councils and others completely new.

How the Changes May Impact on Local Government Staff

Under proposed regulations, transfer of the business of the former authorities to the new councils will fall within the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 (TUPE) to safeguard the rights of staff.

However, as the number of councils is reduced, the Head of Paid Service of any existing authority will not necessarily be able to depend on being selected for the top job at a unitary authority at the end of the process, having to apply for the role and face possible rejection. The same may apply to other senior managers.

For staff who do not remain in employment or who have to consider revised job descriptions, there will be factors arising relating to unfair dismissal, redundancy, pensions and compensation. Even for the majority who do transfer to comparable jobs, there is likely to be a range of concerns, not least of which relate to fairness and equality with regard to pay and terms and conditions of contract.

Under previous major reorganisations, the Government of the day has established a Staff Commission to oversee and set standards for employment matters, but this has not been proposed to ease the passage of the authorities affected on this occasion.

Conclusion

In determining their priorities, it is hoped that the new authorities will seek to provide the support that their staff will need to enable them to embrace the changes and – most important of all - deliver an uninterrupted collection of excellent services to local people. After all, it is unlikely that many Council Taxpayers have ever been too concerned about the shape or structure of their local authority.

Most people just want to have their roads lit, bins emptied and other value-for-money services made available on demand by cheerful, helpful, knowledgeable staff, without the fuss, confusion and disruption that change can cause.

An article by Touchstone Renard's Local Government Team.

Touchstone Renard's Local Government Team

At Touchstone Renard, we can provide support to local authorities with a wide range of services. Our friendly — but experienced — consultants are able and delighted to work with staff at all levels in a variety of different ways.

Photo or Richard Wood

Our Local Government Team is headed by Richard Wood, our HR and Business Services Director. Before joining Touchstone Renard, Richard worked in local government for over thirty years and has extensive experience of working with members, top management teams, partner organisations and staff at all levels.

Richard understands how local government works and has direct experience of the challenges faced under reorganisation, when councils are abolished and replaced by other bodies.

He has developed strategies, policies and procedures and has been involved in bringing about major change. His skills also include training, mentoring and facilitating.

Our team can tailor its support to suit your needs. We do not merely work in an advisory, arm’s length capacity. If you wish, our people can work side by side with local authority mangers or other staff to bring about or support an initiative.

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