This briefing aims to provide useful advice for any councils becoming unitary authorities and shares an overview of lessons learnt from a number of councils who have brought regulatory services together during this process.
Over recent years, a number of English councils have gone through the process of ‘unitarisation’, whereby existing district and county councils in a specific area merge to form a unitary council. New unitary councils were created in Dorset and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (2019), Buckinghamshire (2020) and Northamptonshire (split into two unitary authorities, West Northamptonshire and North Northamptonshire) in 2021. New unitary councils will also come into being in Cumbria (split into Cumberland, and Westmoreland and Furness), North Yorkshire and Somerset in 2023.
The LGA was interested in the specific experience of bringing together regulatory services teams into a unitary structure. With environmental health and licensing services sitting at district/unitary level, and trading standards at county level, unitarisation involves the twin challenges of merging multiple district council approaches to the same services, as well as joining these up with other regulatory services from a different tier. With ongoing financial pressures in regulatory services requiring councils to continually reflect on local structures, policies and practices, we believed that this experience would be of interest to a number of councils, as well as providing insight to other areas going through the process of unitarisation in the future.
In November 2022, the LGA therefore convened a group of officers with experience of bringing together and working in newly merged regulatory services in the areas referenced above, to gather reflections from councils who are going or have been through this process. This briefing provides an overview of their lessons learnt on bringing regulatory services into a unitary authority and will hopefully provide useful advice for councils going through this process in the future.
General experience of the unitarisation process
There were a few general themes which emerged in the discussion about unitarisation. First, it is clear that unitarisation is a long process. Some of the councils spoken to are several years into the unitarisation process and changes are still being worked through and implemented. Officers should be mindful of this when work on unitarisation begins.
Second, there are a number of corporate factors outside the control of heads of regulatory services which will have an impact on the process. One of these factors is staff pay. When teams merged, officers found that some members of staff had the same job title but the job responsibilities and salaries were different in each former council area. Initially staff were willing to show good will and accept different pay grades whilst pay structures were finalised but, if this process is not done quickly, it can understandably cause unhappiness if some staff are earning less than their peers. Early input from senior managers on this issue is important and clear HR practices were also highlighted as being essential.
Given the financial constraints in which all councils are operating, it is likely that identifying savings will form part of the process of unitarisation, and this will apply to regulatory services as well as to other service areas. As such, not all existing budget lines from predecessor authorities may be continued in the new authority; for example, some officers highlighted that training budgets were initially removed. Recognising upfront that these constraints would exist was seen as sensible.
Officers also highlighted IT as a key challenge. It is possible that each council going through the unitarisation process may be using different IT systems and this makes merging structures and working practices harder. Additionally, it is likely that any county council IT system will have no licensing or environmental health function which could require officers to input information manually. Officers in councils who have gone through this process had to manage this through developing good working relationships, but it may be worth highlighting this as an issue for IT teams to consider early.
More broadly, officers highlighted the important role that council communications teams have in developing a shared identity and keeping staff abreast of changes. Some officers highlighted their council’s decision to change the email addresses of all members of staff, rather than opting to keep one council’s email address, as being a particularly helpful measure. Officers felt that keeping one of the previous council’s email addresses could be perceived as a council ‘take-over’ and would be detrimental to efforts to establish a new, shared identity. Other councils adopted the new unitary council’s branding in advance of vesting day to start to develop a shared identity, and officers also regarded this as a helpful measure.
Lessons learnt: regulatory services
Within the context of the general challenges above, a number of specific regulatory services themes were identified by councils.
- Clearly define what regulatory services are: officers highlighted the differences in the definitions of ‘regulatory services’ in each former council area. What was defined as regulatory services in one area was often very different in another and this can mean some services which were managed in regulatory services in one council such as private sector housing enforcement, were managed in other teams in other predecessor councils. This can lead to tensions between different council services areas as to where some specific activities should fit, with teams unwilling to accept responsibilities they feel they are not resourced for or lose areas they are resourced for. Officers suggested there is an important role for senior management to resolve disagreements about where disputed services should fit, ensure that the relevant resources are attached to services transferring in and out and provide the required corporate oversight.
- Heads of regulatory services have a crucial role in establishing a shared identity: during the roundtable, officers spoke of the challenges of staff feeling like part of their former authority after the merger had taken place. Officers agreed that managers have an important role to play in developing a plan on how to effectively bring staff along with the changes and ensuring they are involved, independently of any corporate measures: crucially, staff need to see that unitarisation is being done with them, rather than to them. It is also important that managers display leadership and do not regularly refer to their former council and how things were done there. Thought also needs to be given to how you start to develop a team in advance of vesting day, beyond regular team meetings. For example, managers could host a workshop to gather thoughts on how a specific policy could be merged.
- Establish a clear timeline: Aaclear plan is essential – it is important staff know what needs to be done before vesting day and what needs to be done after vesting day. Once this has been established, developing a clear timeline is helpful to ensure steady progress. Regular updates on the progress of unitarisation from the council as a whole are also useful to ensure staff feel involved in the process. Officers highlighted the important role of project or topic groups in meeting deadlines. These often consisted of managers from each of the councils that were being merged and focused on issues such as fees, policies, and structures. There was consensus that this process relies on the good will of staff, again reinforcing the need to take staff with you throughout this process.
- Have clear management structures in place: establishing clear management structures early is critical for staff as this helps with the sign-off process and helps staff understand responsibilities and accountabilities.
- Developing new structures can be advantageous: generally, officers felt that unitarisation is a good opportunity to start afresh and think about how systems will work best. Their experience suggested that if officers are able to go to decision makers with a plan that all managers are happy with, it is likely to be approved. However, officers highlighted that choosing one way of doing something from one of the former councils can feel like implied criticism of how things were done previously in the other areas, so managers should be mindful of this.
- Aligning policies and fees can be difficult and time consuming: alignment of fees and policies can be challenging, requiring political engagement in relation to some more challenging policies. Officers regarded this as a specific issue in relation to licensing policies and fees but found the process with environmental health slightly easier.
Officers reflected that it is hard for a new unitary to set fees initially, as each former council area has a different approach and it can therefore be hard to justify a single fee. Some councils opted to set an average fee across the whole council area initially, before doing more robust calculations at a later stage. Other councils adopted an approach where different areas had different fees, until they were able to set their own fees.
Among licensing policies, councils reported that taxi/PHV licensing was the most challenging to align compared to alcohol, entertainment and gambling licensing. Councils took different approaches to how they tackled aligning licensing policies, although for gambling and alcohol, some had opted to use the statutory timescales for updating as the basis for bringing predecessor policies together.
For taxi and PHV policies and fees, councils adopted different approaches. One council decided to align the taxi/PHV policy as a priority since, whilst it was the most challenging area from a licensing perspective, they felt there was operational benefits to having a single taxi policy in place from the earliest opportunity. The implementation of Licensing Act and Gambling Act policies were determined by statutory timescales (two years to align) and this followed on from the taxi/PHV policy. However, another council adopted a zonal approach to taxi licensing initially. This was because they did not have their elected decision makers in place, and therefore it was hard to remove some provisions, such as quantity restrictions, without political oversight. It also provided some continuity whilst new policies were developed. However, once vesting day had passed, this caused confusion within the taxi/PHV trade as to why fees and policies varied within the same council area. This is now being urgently reviewed. Moving forwards, officers reflected that there may be more alignment between different council areas because of the implementation of the Department for Transport’s statutory standards of July 2020 and that it is likely the best approach to merging policies will be determined by local factors.
For councils going through the unitarisation process in the future, officers would recommend that a significant amount of time is allocated to the alignment of licensing fees and policies to allow time to work through some of these challenges.
- Raising the profile of regulatory services: at district council level, regulatory services tend to have a higher profile within the council. This may not be the case within a unitary council. Officers should ensure they engage with elected members regularly to demonstrate the important role of regulatory services and how this aligns with the council’s priorities, for example, the role licensing can play in place shaping. Officers coming from district councils should also be mindful that colleagues who have previously worked at county council level may have limited knowledge of regulatory services. Common issues identified were senior staff changing policy documents without fully understanding the implications, for example that some fees are statutory or some fees need to be consulted on before changes can be made.
- Thought should be given to the impact reorganisation could have on service users: some councils focused on website development to ensure it was easy for members of the public to navigate services and prevent any discrepancies in services causing issues or confusion amongst the public, for example, why services are offered in one geographical area and not another. Officers found it helpful to set up web development working groups with the appropriate regulatory services staff to develop the new webpages, and this had the added benefit of staff getting to know each other, working together and talking through any differences in approaches from former council areas, especially between areas that used to be predominantly rural or urban. In some instances, it was possible to work with the digital team from a neighbouring authority that was also going through the unitarisation process, and this was very helpful in sharing the workload and ideas.