Local Government – It’s good to share and share alike
In the first in a series of exclusive articles for Endeavour Public Affairs looking out how local authorities are adapting to cope with increasing demands on their services and reduced funding, Cllr. Stephen Alambritis sets out some of the innovative measures that his council is putting in place. In his article Cllr. Alambritis explains why being a council leader today is a little bit like living the life of Robinson Crusoe – lonely and bereft of resources. The solution as he sees it is to set aside party political differences and to reach out to other council leaders and to share and share alike.
Stephen Alambritis is a Labour Party councilor and is the Leader of the London Borough of Merton.
To follow Stephen Alambritis on Twitter – @cllr_alambritis
It is a truth universally acknowledged that all councils have a duty to balance their budget. Given the cuts in government funding, this is becoming increasingly difficult. This is a big problem in Merton that we have confronted by putting in place a strategy and a narrative for residents based on a set of key principles which help guide our budget process. We are dedicated to continuing to provide the services residents need most and to keeping the council tax at an affordable price without being reckless or indulgent over its level. So far we have had a three-year freeze in the tax. Residents also need to know what we will not be prepared to do. Merton will not be closing any of its libraries or its children’s centres and Merton will not be ending regular street sweeping.
But we know more needs to be done about the funding problem. I have always believed that a problem shared is a problem solved, so early on in this Labour administration we signed up to a memorandum of understanding with our neighbouring boroughs. Although signed by the political leaders, the document gave the go ahead to the chief executives to explore sharing opportunities to seek out savings. The results are there for all to see.
Sharing our legal eagles with three other boroughs is the latest in a line of share and share alike deals we have struck with our South West London neighbours, irrespective of their political persuasion. In a first for four unitary local councils in the UK, the legal services of Merton, Kingston, Sutton, and Richmond councils will become one legal team operating together from the same location. The move is set to save more than £2 million between these councils over a four-year period once they have integrated, while providing each borough with a substantially increased pool of legal expertise, reducing the need to instruct outside lawyers. Moving the legal team into one location in Merton will also mean fewer office overheads and greater efficiency in how the service operates.
The new service will streamline processes, increase transparency, reduce external legal costs, and improve customer satisfaction and client care with savings in the region of 20 per cent. Feasibility studies showed that sharing legal services would not only save money but would also improve resilience, flexibility, and responsiveness. The new service will bring together legal professionals from the four boroughs in an environment where they can share best practice and expertise.
Another first for these South West London boroughs involves the most important resource of any organisation – its employees. The current human resources (HR) shared service with Sutton was the first fully shared local government HR service in England. This demonstrates the pioneering approach to service transformation taken by Merton and Sutton. The service moved to a fully shared basis when Sutton became the lead council for the provision of all HR services, including strategic and operational, to both councils. The shared service has enabled significant savings to date with approximately £1.2 million saved as a result of business efficiencies such as de-layering, strategic procurement, economies of scale, and business process re-engineering. We also share a common HR and payroll database with the Royal Borough of Kingston – demonstrating our commitment to improving the efficiency of back office functions. Sharing in this way will deliver £6.2 million for the three partners over the life of the contract.
We are also sharing in the world of education. Since 2011 our head of school admissions has also acted in that same role for Sutton. This sharing arrangement has provided efficiencies as the two councils benefit from the specialist expertise of a senior manager across both local authorities, while delegating less strategic work to other staff.
While other central London boroughs talk about merging, we will continue to talk about sharing. The latter brings in savings much earlier to the benefit of residents. Sharing rather than merging also retains the democratic element as residents continue to yearn to belong to an identifiable area to which they pay taxes and receive representation and services in return.
I had heard of the phrase share and share alike from my school days in Putney, but at the time I never knew where it came from. In fact the exact phrase originated in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 publication of The life and strange adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
One could say that being the council leader of Merton Council today is rather like living the life of Robinson Crusoe – lonely and bereft of resources as each spending review fails to bring the expected lifeline. But if one accepts that there is a Robinson Crusoe in every borough, then if you can reach out to them, why not do so and share and share alike for the benefit of our residents.
Published: Thursday 07 March 2013
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