National Audit Office projections show that government funding to local councils is expected to fall by 37% between 2010 and 2016. While the government continues to defend the cuts, several local authorities are taking drastic measures to make the necessary savings to balance their books: by merging their trading standards departments. The proposed merger, between Buckinghamshire and Surrey councils, is predicted to save close to £400,000 per year.
Co-operation is key
As Buckinghamshire trading standards has noted expertise in the areas of food safety and animal welfare, and Surrey has experience dealing with doorstep crime, it was felt that the two departments could co-operate across county council boundaries effectively, without the need for staff relocations, forced redundancies or office closures. In fact, they are confident that services will improve. So far so good, but can it really work?
There are certainly problems associated with local government mergers. The proposed merger of trading standards, environmental health and licensing at Bridgend, Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff councils, provides ample examples of that.
The councillors behind the merger proposal suggested that it could make immediate savings of £1.3m. However, Unison were quick to challenge the idea of redundancies, raising the spectre of long legal wrangles and bad publicity. What's more, the complexities of combining existing workforces and services ultimately caused Welsh public services minister Leighton Andrews to reject the merger on the grounds he was "not persuaded" that a "compelling vision" had been laid out.
In light of this, the smaller scale merger between Buckinghamshire and Surrey looks a much safer bet, as it avoids direct job losses and office closures, promises improved services through shared expertise and doesn't visibly remove front line services. In fact, the biggest risk is that the savings simply aren't enough to solve council debt issues.
In November 2014 the Audit Commission flagged that £4.55bn of council tax and business rates were unpaid in 2013/14, and individual council arrears ranged from £11.1m to £105.2m. So the potential savings from such mergers pale in comparison with an effective debt collection policy.
For advice on developing a sensitive, considerate approach to recouping council tax arrears, contact a Dukes Bailiffs advisor today.