Cllr Baroness Scott of Bybrook OBE reflects on being the leader of one of the country’s first unitary councils
AUTHOR: CLLR BARONESS SCOTT OF BYBROOK OBE, WILTSHIRE COUNCIL
Retiring as leader of Wiltshire Council this year has offered me the opportunity to reflect on all that has been achieved, and how local government has changed over the last ten years. For me, chief among these was the creation of Wiltshire Council in 2009. As the leader of Wiltshire County Council at the time, applying for unitary status seemed like a golden opportunity to improve the delivery and efficiency of services for 470,000 people.
Ten years on this proved to be the case – the move to unitary authority exceeded our original savings estimates. The transitional costs of creating the unitary Wiltshire Council were £18m, compared to a saving totalling £68m in our first term (between 2009 and 2013). Back office costs now only comprise 9% of Wiltshire Council’s budget as opposed to 19% for its predecessor bodies (four districts and one county). Wiltshire Council has found that customers find accessing our services considerably easier with much less confusion about who is responsible for what. These changes also acted as a platform for further transformation with other public services, which now share back-office functions and property with us. New approaches to our public estate have seen the co-location of the library, leisure, health and social care, police, fire and other services alongside community organisations inaccessible locations in several towns across Wiltshire.
However, our reasoning for establishing the Wiltshire Council wasn’t driven solely by the numbers in our business case. We set out a compelling vision of what the future council would look like. Key to this was our vision of empowering local communities to do more for themselves. Area Boards were an important part of this. They were established with executive powers set out in our constitution, and with the expectation of further resources and decision-making powers being devolved to them later. This approach has borne dividends. The introduction of 18 community Area Boards in 2009 saw more and more responsibilities, services and funding devolved to local areas, enabling decisions and actions to be implemented based on what is needed and what is right for each of these very different communities. So far, we have allocated more than £15m to support the delivery of local projects and schemes. For every £1 that we allocate, £7 in a match or additional funding is secured. The total investment in local communities over the ten years is more than £100m. Funding has been assigned for highway improvements, young people’s activities, older people’s wellbeing schemes, footpaths and high street enhancements, and to support hundreds of local clubs and groups to grow and prosper.
Alongside our approach to Area Boards, which actively involve local councils, it has been a fundamental part of our approach, that services that are best delivered locally should be overseen locally. Reflecting this, Wiltshire Council has transferred and continues to transfer, hundreds of assets and services. The largest transfer of assets and services was to Salisbury City Council both in 2009 (upon its creation to ensure Wiltshire is fully parished) and in 2016, and this is the model that is being applied across the county. Over the last year, negotiation on significant service delegation and asset transfer packages took place with Devizes, Chippenham, Pewsey and Royal Wootton Bassett town councils. The intention is to extend this approach to the whole county by the end of next year. Local councils can also apply to Area Boards for the transfer of smaller, non-strategic sites at any time.
In the last decade, we have also seen thousands (more than 6,000) volunteers helping to deliver services and provide support to help make our county even better. Today, almost 900 volunteers support our 31 libraries. Many others give their time to assist in our children’s centres, work with refugees to help with their settlement, keep the many public footpaths open and accessible so that people can enjoy our beautiful countryside, support walking and cycling groups across the county, and many other sports and activities – and young people that help older people to use digital technology and keep connected.
This approach has meant we have been able to maintain and expand a range of frontline services – protecting our spend in adult and children social care, increasing investment in highways and haven’t closed one library.
Looking back, things were also not always easy. The journey to becoming a unitary authority was unsettling for those involved and disruptive in the short term. The opposition was significant. It also takes time to reconcile five different cultures and ways of doing things. However, in my view, the advantages in efficiency and the opportunities to free up resources to empower local communities have more than outweighed the short-term pain. It was heartening that following my valedictory speech many councillors who had opposed unitarisation were happy to admit they would not have done so knowing what they do now. The richness of community spirit, the dedication of local councils and the hard work of staff over the last decade have all played their part in ensuring the success of Wiltshire Council and the prosperity of the county. As I head to the backbenches, I know that the next generation of leaders will continue to play their part in taking this forward.
This article was first published in the Autumn issue of NALC’s flagship magazine, LCR. To read more articles like this, subscribe to LCR