County council set for total reform
SUFFOLK County Council is to be effectively dismantled and the services it provides will be supplied by other organisations, it has emerged.In the biggest shake-up in Suffolk's local government for 150 years, less than 1pc of county council staff could still be directly employed by the authority in ten years' time.
SUFFOLK County Council is to be effectively dismantled and the services it provides will be supplied by other organisations, it has emerged.
In the biggest shake-up in Suffolk's local government for 150 years, less than 1pc of county council staff could still be directly employed by the authority in ten years' time.
Thousands of jobs could be lost as the council moves to become an 'enabling' authority.
The council has responded to threats of Government spending cuts by seeking to change the way it provides services to the people of Suffolk.
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Instead of directly providing services such as education, social services, road repairs, libraries, and trading standards it will seek to buy-in such services from outside suppliers.
The Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service could be 'divested' as a separate fire authority as happens in Essex and Cambridgeshire - although council leader Jeremy Pembroke says it is likely to remain under direct council control.
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Suffolk County Council now employs about 27,000 people. They include just under 15,000 in schools and just over 12,000 in other council services.
The ultimate aim of an 'enabling authority' would see the central body employing between 200 and 500 people, many of them contract managers.
The council expects to lose responsibility for all schools over the next few years as the Government converts them to academies and free schools.
People employed in other departments - including social services, highways and transport, trading standards, educational support, libraries and cultural services - would be transferred into 'social enterprises' or commercial contractors.
Their work for the council would be regulated by the contract managers who will remain full-time employees of the authority.
Mr Pembroke said yesterday that Suffolk was 'ahead of the pack' in moving towards becoming an enabling authority.
'We have been working on this as part of the new strategic direction since September of last year. Other authorities are looking at the same kind of move - but we are ahead of the pack.
'We don't have any details drawn up yet - but we know the kind of direction we are going. There are some very good organisations out there we can work with to provide services.
'If you look at adult social care, look at the great work done by Age Concern.
'We could work with them to provide more care in the area - there are many more examples like that.'
The next full meeting of the council at the end of the month is to be asked to endorse the moves - which will enable senior officers and councillors to move quickly when the Government publishes its comprehensive spending assessment in late October.
Mr Pembroke insisted that the move away from direct council provision would safeguard services.
'The amount of money we are going to have to spend on providing services will fall dramatically over the next few years,' he said.
'If we don't reform the way we deliver those services then the cuts would have to be much deeper - much more painful.
'By becoming an enabling authority we will give local people the opportunity to decide what level of service they want.'
However, opposition councillors and the main union involved were deeply concerned about the proposed changes.
Official opposition leader Kathy Pollard, of the Liberal Democrats, said her group had no ideological opposition to transferring services to social enterprises - but was anxious to ensure democratic accountability was retained.
'Services can be delivered more efficiently by external organisations, but their work has to be monitored very carefully,' she said.
'There have been occasions when the services have not been up to the standard we wanted and the council has to be able to respond quickly if there is a problem.'
And Unison regional general secretary Greg Grant was dubious about whether the authority would be able to transform itself.
'We have heard about this kind of thing before - Nicholas Ridley talked about this when he was one of Mrs Thatcher's leading supporters and that never got anywhere,' he said.
'There is a great deal of concern among the workforce, but that is true across the public sector at the moment.'