South West councils' merger the shape of things to come


Combined authorities will increasingly become "the most sustainable solution to budget cuts" - after two more authorities agreed to merge.

Taunton Deane and West Somerset councils will progress plans to become a single authority next year after both authorities have now voted the business case through.

The move was supported by the majority of councillors from both authorities, with members supporting a leaner, combined council "for the greater good".

It follows a high profile debate that saw MPs and council leaders go to Westminster to present the plan a to Local Government minister Marcus Jones.

Both council are members of the transformation agency iESE (Improvement & Efficiency Social Enterprise), who have been working with them over the last year to help to understand the various options for the councils and which would provide both the sustainability they need and the innovation that they want for the future. 

iESE has helped the councils to take a creative look at how they will interact with their customers in the future, gaining a deep insight of the services they provides from a customer perspective, which will influence how they are structured and the ICT requirements that will be needed for the future.

The councils have worked with iESE to develop a new blueprint for the future, with highlighted savings and new operating model for the single new authority. It aims to save £1.8m a year through improved customer access, an integrated, customer-driven ICT strategy, and a leadership and culture transformation.

Andrew Larner, CEO of iESE, said the successful merger was "another vindication of councils' ability to innovate" against further expected budget impacts in the autumn statement.

"Short term solutions just aren't going to deliver in the future. To some extent, neither are medium term solutions. Councils have really risen to that challenge and I think the West Somerset and Taunton Deane decision shows that.

"Just a couple of years ago, combined authorities were radical, almost unthinkable. We are now seeing them become familiar. And in the future, they will be commonplace - councils know the direction of travel and are looking to the long term."

John Knight, iESE principal consultant, who worked with the councils to develop the blueprint adds "Importantly, Taunton Deane and West Somerset have learnt from other authorities who have been on a similar journey and recognised that success will be delivered by a closer relationship with its customers and creative, new behaviours from its staff. Individually, the councils would have only have been able to deliver pared back, minimal services. Together they will have opportunities positively to develop their respective areas for the good of their citizens.  Members and officers of both councils should be congratulated in taking this bold move."

And after what appeared to be a positive response from the new Local Government minister, it looks as though the model is increasingly the most tangible solution to delivering better outcomes with less funding.