Colin Foster, director of adult social services at Rutland Council, reflects on the pitfalls and payoffs of being England’s smallest unitary authority
1997 may well be best remembered for the year Tony Blair came to power, but it was also the year that Rutland Council re-emerged as a stand alone – and England’s smallest – unitary authority. Ten years on, how has Rutland and its social services department coped with the major change initiatives and additional demands of Blair’s tenure in office?
As a small authority with less than 40,000 population the early responses and jibes were far from supportive. Somewhat paradoxical presumptions that a small rural population did not merit or need its own council were matched by those convinced that it could not work and that there would quickly be requests to be taken under the wing of a larger authority. The comments, however, soon faded as Rutland, and in particular its social services department, emerged as competent and quickly improving players in the changing social care world.
In 1997, social services in Rutland was two mornings a week in a Portakabin. In 2007 we have a fully functioning children and adult social services that compare favourably with most authorities. This has been achieved to a backdrop of ever changing and increasing government demands, inspections, resource constraints and heightened user expectations.
The initial inheritance was not good. Like many of the new unitaries at the time, the former host authorities ensured they had the better portion of the resource split. In Rutland’s case significant long-term placement commitments were not matched by delegated funding and disproportionate and long-standing debt repayments added to the new authority’s resource burden. There has also been the (continuing) inability of the national funding formula to adequately reflect the increasing social care demands of the Rutland community due to formulaic presumptions based on apparent ‘affluence’ and low overall population numbers. The demands and expectations on Rutland were every bit as great as for larger authorities – but the council’s portion of any new grant was often so small as to be unusable in itself.
The then health secretary Alan Milburn’s ‘naming and shaming’ star rating approach in 2001 was also a specific challenge. Rutland did not have (nor could afford) the core infrastructure retained by the larger, longer standing authorities to be able to respond as well to demands for strategies, vision, plans and ever greater, more sophisticated, data requirements – explicit components of the developing national performance management ‘new Labour’ world.
Rutland therefore has responded, perhaps slower than some, to this changing agenda. With no training section, performance management section, contracting and commissioning section – all these became part of the enlarged role of local managers. However, in many ways this has epitomised Rutland’s strengths as staff have had to deal with a wider range of issues, client groups and problems than counterparts in larger authorities. The emphasis has both politically and professionally been on individuals, service users and positive local partnerships to ensure the best service possible out of the limited resources available.
Dame Denise Platt recently visited and commented positively on the importance of Rutland ‘people’ and vital relationships between staff and service users. Our employment scheme for those with mental health problems and learning disabilities has concentrated on getting (now over 100) people into paid employment rather than on devising employment strategies and protocols. Positive outcomes for individuals, rightly the recent emphasis of government, has long been the focus of staff and politicians in Rutland.
Early assumptions that Rutland could only possibly, because of its size, ‘broker’ out services to neighbouring larger authorities have proved untrue. Rutland still directly either commissions or provides most services itself – with unit costs comparable to many larger authorities. Residential services are provided in partnership with the private sector, whereby inherited old and unfit for purpose older people’s units have been replaced by modern environments.
Contrary to some presumptions, relatively affluent areas like Rutland do have problems; average wage levels disguise pockets of families and individuals on minimum wage (or less) often in seasonal employment. In many ways it is much easier to be old, ill or disabled in an urban conurbation than in an isolated rural village. Cities and large towns may have deprivation, but they also generally have services close at hand and are much better able to attract additional national resources. Rutland Council continues to try and establish different ways of addressing these rural and sparsity issues – often not fully recognised in national policy thinking and development.
Working in Rutland is as demanding and complex as elsewhere. It places great demands on the flexibilities and skill sets of senior management, politicians and staff at all levels. When one high cost placement for an adult or child with a severe disability can equate to 1% of council tax – with minimum reserves in place – there is real pressure on all involved.
Partnership working and community involvement, (increasingly important national themes over the past 10 years) have been key to the successes Rutland has achieved. Managers have been successful influential players in sub-regional partnerships, contributing to and receiving valuable support from colleagues – especially in Leicester and Leicestershire. The active involvement of the voluntary sector has also been an important driver to successful local service provision and wider participation.
Partnerships with health colleagues have been increasingly complex as restructures have resulted in an ever changing environment over the last decade. Often Rutland has been the only consistent member of these changing partnerships – but there have been positive outcomes in respect of integrated learning disability, mental health and intermediate care services, despite often being only a small geographical part of the health trusts concerned.
Overall the authority has positively responded to the changing agenda. Rutland social services has always tried to learn from inspections – even if they have (occasionally) been unfair and totally out of context (low numbers make a mockery of some of the performance indicators especially in children’s services) and persuading Audit Commission and other inspectors that legitimate low usage and % year-on-year shifts are not necessarily poor performance has been a continuous theme.
Being small can be advantageous, we can respond to changing agendas, do things differently and far quicker (resources permitting) than many authorities. Changing operational priorities across the whole authority can take days rather than months and trying out different ways of doing things – potentially as ‘pilot’ areas for larger bodies – can lead to innovation and creativity.
Ten years on, Rutland flourishes despite an increasingly complex and demanding national environment. It continues to improve and despite its difference in terms of size it has proved the doubters wrong. Rutland can and does work as a distinct and separate unitary authority.
Rutland would not argue itself as a model for others – the strong historical context of an independent Rutland is perhaps unique. However, there is an ability and willingness to look outwards as well as inwards and to pursue what works for the local population – be it running our own service or working in a larger partnership. Despite the move towards larger regional models of government, Rutland provides a useful counterbalance of the advantages of more localised service provision.
The Rutland motto ‘multum in parvo’ (much in little) remains apt. Despite the ever changing local government environment, with a fair wind and even more so with a fairer funding formula, Rutland should be here for at least a further 10 years.