Spring 2019 has been notable for news of hard-up councils facing fundamental restructures, leading to the dissolution of familiar local government entities.
Last week the long-awaited division into two new unitary authorities of Northamptonshire, which having declared itself financially unsustainable last year has been a poster child for the combined impacts of mismanagement and austerity. Eight smaller councils will also cease to exist as the county’s two-tier system of governance is abolished.
But further south and west a similar transformation has already taken place. On 1 April, nine councils in Dorset were reorganised into two new unitary authorities.
Dorset council has replaced the former county council, the Purbeck, East Dorset, West Dorset and North Dorset district councils, and Weymouth and Portland borough council, while Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) councils have joined together to form the second new authority.
Proposals for the reorganisation were put forward in 2016, after it emerged the councils had to find £200m savings by 2019. In February 2018, the then housing, communities and local government secretary, Sajid Javid, agreed to support the merger and it was approved by Parliament in May that year.
At the time, a joint statement from council leaders said it was a “historic day” for local government in the county. They added that the change would help protect local services, boost economic growth, reduce costs and provide more efficient councils structured around communities.
Janine Miller, a regional organiser for Unison in Dorset, told Community Care the merger was driven by demand and budget pressures across the board, but primarily those relating to social care.
She added: “We don’t believe any of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the fact that all the councils were struggling with funding, which is obviously a national government issue.”
Unlike Northamptonshire, where an independent commissioner deemed that the county’s “fragile” children’s services should be hived off, whole, into a new independent trust, Dorset has seen all of its council-delivered social care retained within the new unitary authority setup.
One significant change has been the shift into BCP of the former Christchurch Borough Council – the social care services for which were previously overseen by Dorset County Council.
More on social care in Dorset
Christchurch had opposed the local government reorganisation, suggesting that a model similar to Tricuro, a jointly owned company set up to deliver adult care services in Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole (and continuing under the new system), could take on all social care across the county.
In May 2018, Christchurch launched a legal challenge against the reorganisation proposals, but this was dismissed by the High Court and the council opted not to appeal.
Miller said it was “very difficult” to say how the transfer of staff and care users in Christchurch to BCP council will affect social care provision in the area going forward – but it is a key concern.
“It was all done very quickly and the mantra was ‘safe and legal’ for day one, but what the councils haven’t done a great deal of work around yet is the service transformation,” she said.
“That’s the area we are really concerned about in terms of how it might affect social care.”
‘Clear transfer protocol’
Jan Thurgood, corporate director for adult social care at BCP council, said service transformation would take “some time”, because the new authority was picking up structures and services from three different predecessors. But over time these would be made into “one coherent whole”, she added.
“A real focus has been on a safe transition and elected members have been very clear this process must be one that doesn’t lead to detriment for any individual receiving services,” Thurgood said.
The process included creating a clear protocol for the transfer of Christchurch’s social care cases to the new council, with detailed information on people who use care services. Shadowing opportunities were also provided for staff, so that where it was necessary to make a change in social worker, families and children had the opportunity to get to know the new practitioner before 1 April.
“We’ve been very careful about what it means to individual families and how we can ensure from their point of view that the transition was as seamless as possible,” Thurgood added.
In the new Dorset council, meanwhile, social care will have a “whole life” focus, rather than a separation between children and adults, with the aim of people having a continuous service. As part of the redesign, 40 ‘service champions’ have been recruited, including frontline social workers and commissioners, who will look at the existing offer in Dorset and how it can be improved.
Steve Crocker, the council’s principal social worker, said having staff from all aspects of social care as the champions would enable them to look at people’s experiences of the service “through all the different lenses” and use their expert knowledge to look at what works best for service users.
“Most often these things are done with a very top-down approach,” Crocker added. The champions model on the other hand, he said, would enable changes to social care services to be driven by staff and the public.
“One of the current projects involves looking at the way day services are delivered and workers are moving away from the traditional place-based approach to one that’s more personalised,” Crocker said.
“We’re harnessing what’s out there in the communities – in Weymouth, for example, there are opportunities to use facilities built for the Olympics that were constructed with accessibility in mind.”
Terms and conditions
The biggest concern raised by social workers with Unison prior to the transfer was about the terms and conditions that will be offered to new staff joining the two councils, according to Miller.
Miller said BCP had chosen to offer what were the old Poole council’s terms and conditions to new social work staff – so there is “very little difference”. In Dorset, by contrast, the new authority had come up with “a whole new set of terms and conditions”, which have not been agreed by the trade union, she added.
“We couldn’t come to an agreement with them because we didn’t believe the terms and conditions were good enough for staff, particularly around weekend and out-of-hours working,” Miller said. “There’s been a cut for new staff in those terms and conditions and we are very concerned about what the impact of that will be on the recruitment of social workers and other social care staff.”
She added that Unison was looking at doing a piece of work to present back to Dorset council about “cross-border issues” and the rates of pay being offered by neighbouring authorities, which could draw potential staff elsewhere where rates are higher than what Dorset offers.
“We’re already struggling with recruitment and using high numbers of agency staff in some of these critical teams and that’s something we’re really concerned about in the future,” Miller said.
In March, the outgoing director for social services at Dorset, Nick Jarman, told the former council’s audit and governance committee that the merger was expected to reduce the use of agency staff.
He estimated that at least 16 of the 30 posts currently filled by agency workers in children’s services – 28 filling vacancies and two covering for people on maternity leave – would be taken up by permanent staff under the new council, each resulting in a saving of up to £30,000 a year.
‘Watch this space’
Existing staff have been transferred over to the two new councils under TUPE regulations, which preserve their terms and conditions, but both councils will seek to create one single set of terms and conditions for all council staff in the future.
Thurgood said BCP was “committed to providing a great environment for practitioners to work in” and that there would be a process of “harmonisation of all terms and conditions over time”.
Miller expressed concerns that as part of this process, BCP has brought in a consultancy firm to work with management to draw up a pay and rewards system. This could, she added, mean a move away from nationally negotiated pay and conditions, known as the Green Book – the single status agreement that covers the pay and conditions for 1.4m local authority employees.
“We do not understand why a local council would want to spend the time, energy and money moving away from national terms and conditions and opening up local bargaining,” she said.
“On the Dorset side they are looking to harmonise within the current structures that we have and they are not going so far at the moment of looking at a whole new pay and reward system.”
When asked about the issue, BCP did not confirm or deny whether a consultancy firm had been brought in to undertake the review, but a spokesperson said the council was “working on a number of employee engagement initiatives, such as retention and recruitment strategies, which would include a full review of reward of terms and conditions of employment in due course”.
“It’s a case of watch this space on this one I think – at the point of transfer it was a ‘lift and drop’, but we will need to watch closely what happens over the next six months,” Miller added.