Baroness Scott is the Leader of Wiltshire Council.
Some may consider that a vision to have one public service that meets the needs of our changing nation is unattainable and surely driven by an idealist.
Yet, as a visionary, who also believes in pragmatism and reality, I do believe in a vision where there is one public service which delivers the services to meet the needs of all residents.
My belief is based on our experience in Wiltshire, where I have had the privilege of being leader since 2003. Our journey towards one public sector started more than eight years ago, and it continues to become reality today.
In 2009, we combined five councils into one, to create one of the largest new shire unitary councils; Wiltshire Council. Wiltshire Council spends £900m each year to provide 354 services to the people of Wiltshire.
Whilst this merger flew in the face of Conservative policy at that time – and it was a risk both for me personally and the Conservative members in Wiltshire – I knew that we had little choice other than to push the unitary option forward. Our choice was to either struggle to continue to deliver vital front line services and see these services reduce or stop – or to seize the opportunity and push ahead and merge the Wiltshire local authorities to reap the benefits.
I won’t pretend that it wasn’t a challenge – there was a host of risks and blockages and some serious opposition, but I know it was the right decision and I can honestly say that in Wiltshire we haven’t looked back. What’s more, it provided the platform for us to realise and seize new opportunities.
Merging five authorities delivered huge savings – more than £125 million so far.
As well as streamlining the obvious duplication – our back office costs are less than six per cent of the total budget – this compares to 19 per cent prior to the merger.
We’ve also rationalised more than 105 offices and premises including costly out of date buildings such as libraries, leisure centres, youth clubs and community centres to create brand new state of the art community campuses and hubs offering a wide range of public services. The net savings in running costs alone is more than £6m a year – this is money that we are reinvesting into the key front line services.
The council now has three main flexible workspaces in Salisbury, Chippenham and Trowbridge. These are the key hubs for delivering council services but are also enhanced by the presence of partners from a number of different agencies who share the same site, resources and facilities.
Teams work creatively in partnership with the NHS, police, fire and rescue, and voluntary and community groups at these three sites. This sharing of facilities also means sharing of information, resources and ensuring more value for money for the taxpayer.
Wiltshire Police share the council’s offices in Salisbury and Chippenham delivering real value for money. Joint Systems Thinking, Programme Management teams were set up in 2013 and a joint IT solution was implemented, enabling access to services across both estates. Co-located neighbourhood police teams were also established in Corsham, Salisbury and Chippenham and the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub in Trowbridge (MASH).
The MASH is based in Trowbridge bringing together police, health, education and early help to quickly and effectively respond to potential safeguarding incidents. This has led to closer working and more effective partnerships, which was praised in December 2016 by an Ofsted-led inspection of the support provided to vulnerable children.
In our Chippenham offices, an entire floor is leased to a private company, Good Energy, generating revenue while also enabling and supporting jobs in the local area. The NHS Community Team, HMRC and the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership are also based at the hub.
Reducing to three hubs with a staff of more than 5,000 has been made possible by harnessing new technology into the workplace. The council has a hot desk policy; based on a 3:1 occupancy, and the flexibility for people to work from any administrative or community hubs by setting up their laptop and connecting to the network. Our social workers work with tablets where they can log key information while on the move, cutting travel time and making administration quicker so they can concentrate on the needs of their clients.
We are in no doubt that there are further savings to be realised and right from the start of our journey I have advocated that it’s not about being a unitary council – it’s about unitary plus.
Unitary plus are not just words – it’s real – it’s one public sector.
The sharing of facilities with key partners is now prevalent throughout our new community campuses, which provide improved facilities and services to local communities across the county.
The campus in Salisbury hosts the headquarters of the Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service. Wiltshire Citizens Advice also moved into the premises in 2016. At Springfield Community Campus (in Corsham) people can visit the library and cafe and try out the gym but the centre is also a real community hub drawing in local groups to use the facilities. Wiltshire Police has a presence at the centre, which will also soon be a base for Virgin Care and Wiltshire Health and Care. Council staff are also able to use the facility to work from.
Attendance at the campus has more than doubled in the past year and the fitness suite now has more than 1,600 members, generating additional income for the council. The Nadder Centre in Tisbury has a library, pre-school, fitness suite, children’s centre services and hosts the local Army cadets, police, History Society and a range of private businesses that lease space to generate revenue.
The administrative hubs and campuses provide a safe place to do business, deliver customer services and to integrate with the community.
We know that public sector resources are under pressure and that we have to focus our resource where it is most needed. Across the public sector we need to make sure we can continue to protect and support those who are most vulnerable in our local communities. We know that the demand is increasing with people living longer and unfortunately more children needing care.
The public sector has to work together – it makes sense – our vision, priorities and demands are the same.
The changes and challenges ahead will force further change – integration, shared resources and facilities and prevention are all critical factors.
The demands and expectations for public services; particularly older people services, means health and social care must integrate to deliver improvements and better outcomes. Early prevention focused on health and wellbeing needs to start from the youngest age to avoid additional and undeliverable demands in the future.
Unitary plus is real in Wiltshire. We are continuing to learn and evolve. We promote and support one public sector and we are moving in this direction. Resource is a vital commodity for all of us and we realise that together we can achieve so much more.
Public sector partners, businesses, service providers and communities need to work together. Through collaboration and sharing resources we can deliver what people need and what matters most to them.
Our journey is gathering pace – we have a distance to go – but some have yet to get off the starting blocks. My message is get started – don’t hesitate – and realise that the risks and challenges will be far outweighed with the success and rewards that can be reaped.
We know this to be the case. In Wiltshire we have pushed our vision forward and collaboratively we are moving towards one public service.