Into the shadows of council reform: Local government leaders have a working blueprint to ease the transition from old county and district bodies into unitary authorities

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SIMMERING below the legal challenges and warnings of shire revolt, the impending reorganisation of county and district councils faces a less tangible threat - 'the wrecking factor'.

If it is allowed to, it will be seized upon by politicians and officers who have nothing to gain from new councils and who will exploit any fault in the transition, or any opportunity to spend on graveyard projects.

Such resistance to change is one of the pitfalls that local government organisations, such as the Local Government Management Board (LGMB) and the Audit Commission, are attempting to head off.

A practical working paper, 'Commissioning the New Authorities', has been published by the LGMB in conjunction with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, the Association of County Councils and the Association of District Councils, to guide senior managers through the re-organisation process.

Its author is Roger Morris, chief executive of Northampton Borough Council and a veteran of the 1974 re-organisation. The paper includes objectives, procedural steps and checklists for those involved in laying the foundations for new authorities to take over from the old, for the winding down of old authorities, and for elections and appointing a chief executive.

The need for such a guide was clearly highlighted during a simulation exercise that preceded its publication, organised by the Office of Public Management. The exercise, over one and a half days, involved 70 participants who set up two unitary councils from three existing district councils and one county council. One of those taking part, Mel Usher, chief executive of South Somerset District Council, said: 'The shift of powers from the old authorities to the new is rapid, and could be quite debilitating and dangerous. The future becomes the immediate priority, and people are more interested in the new authority - but services still need to be run.

'My fear is that because change is going to be so rapid, there will be a tendency to concentrate on familiar management methods, whereas I think we should be taking this as an opportunity to build something new that local people can really feel they are part of.'

During the exercise, one of the old councils collapsed when all its senior staff were appointed to one of the new ones. Mr Morris said the pitfalls of re-organisation are legion.

'I suppose one of the main problems that councils face is lack of time and the uncertainty that is bound to be in the minds of all senior staff. The large majority of staff will be transferred pretty automatically into the same job under the new employer. But this doesn't apply to those who hold some of the most senior management jobs, including chief executives - and yet it is that group that drives the process forward.'

In the introduction to the report, Mr Morris says councils should start planning now for re-organisation, regardless of where they are placed in the timetable. 'Once people believe re-organisation is really going to happen, it will change their perceptions. The psychology's different and you are then into the planning stage.'

South Somerset district has begun the groundwork by way of think-tanks involving Somerset County Council, Mendip District Council, other organisations and the public, Mr Usher said. Among issues that have already surfaced is the possibility of a more federal local government structure - highly decentralised and devolved.

Frank Maude, chief executive of Northavon District Council, said groups of members and officers have been meeting regularly and financial issues, such as disaggregating budgets, are already well advanced. A personnel group is identifying staff who will transfer automatically, and there are special service groups.

Avon's new unitaries are expected to be in place from 1 April 1996, so elections for the shadow authority will take place next May. 'The gear-up has been quite successful and it is gathering pace, but I have massive concerns about the timescale. By the time you have had an election, called a meeting and appointed a chief executive, the reality is that you don't get a year of the shadow authority - you get about seven months,' Mr Maude said.

He also voiced concern that most councillors will be inexperienced in running services. The existing wards will yield a maximum of 16 county councillors to fill 70 seats on the unitary council. Some of the experienced councillors will not stand; some may lose at the polls. He said the potential learning curve for the new intake, therefore, will need to be intensive and fast.

Their task will be made much easier if the procedures outlined in the working paper are followed, Mr Morris said. The report starts with the earliest steps of setting up officer and councillor groups, plus shared secretariat and working groups for collecting information. Councils would be well advised to start on this stage now, he said.

The next stage is establishment of preparatory or transitional committees that will examine advice on staff transfers and prepare some of the ground for elections, for the first meeting of the shadow authority and the appointment of a chief executive. Once elections have taken place, shadow councils can be set up; these will formally become the new councils the following year.

The report points out: 'The early days of the shadow authority are crucial because its deliberations on what kind of authority it wants to be and who should be appointed chief executive or head of the paid service, will set the tone for everything that follows.'

Winding down the old council is, of course, one of the areas where problems have been well documented, and its checklist of issues makes sombre reading - ensuring co-operation between the old and new councils, and that employees are well-treated, and being wary of asset stripping and of 'demob happy' management.

Mr Morris was keen, however, to urge optimism about the review and its potential to unlock new management practice. 'There is a strong new entrepreneurial breed of chief executive and director around that will take as a challenge the task of making these things work,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)