Three-way marriage for councils?

Great Yarmouth Borough Council hopes to forge a three-way management merger with two other authorities which could become the first of its kind in the UK.

Talks began earlier today with Breckland Council and South Holland District Council in Lincolnshire, which have both saved �500,000 since appointing joint chief executive Terry Huggins last year to lead a single tier of senior officers.

Yarmouth's move to join the partnership has been prompted by the forthcoming retirement of its chief executive Richard Packham, which could leave a gap for Mr Huggins to take the helm of all three councils.

In July, Yarmouth pulled out of a proposed tie-up with South Norfolk Council, saying the services merger 'posed too many risks'.

But now they could have the option of sharing the expertise of the much larger management team at Breckland and South Holland at a fraction of the cost of filling their high-level vacancies – with the savings split three ways.

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Although it is hoped any staff savings could be achieved through 'natural wastage', neither of the politicial leaders of Yarmouth and Breckland could guarantee there would be no redundancies. Staff briefings were held at each council yesterday and talks will begin soon to see if a decision can be reached early next year.

It is believed that if the deal goes ahead it will be the first of its kind in UK local government, and the leaders of the Conservative-run authorities said the move could improve efficiency and value for money.

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But a Labour councillor in Yarmouth branded the idea as 'nutty'.

Great Yarmouth Council leader Steve Ames said: 'Breckland and South Holland District Councils have demonstrated the way in which shared management can work and my council is delighted to be able to seize this opportunity to explore working with them.

'This offers Great Yarmouth the chance to develop greater resilience and it will give access to a wider range of management skill and experience, allied to better recruitment and retention prospects.

'These are difficult times and it is only by looking to adopt new and innovative ways of working that we can create the organisation and savings needed to continue to provide the quality services valued by our residents.

'Richard Packham is coming up for retirement within the next 12 months. As far as we are concerned with a couple of retirements coming up and our medium-term financial strategy on track, what we are really hoping to gain is resilience. 'But there will be cost savings to be made as well. It is early days, but with the element of natural wastage, it is very difficult to confirm or deny it (redundancies).'

Opposition Labour councillor Michael Castle said: 'There have been some pretty nutty ideas coming out of this council, but this latest one is the nuttiest. No-one is against sensible collaboration but to share senior management with Breckland in the west of the county and South Holland in Lincolnshire does not seem to me to be sensible. If savings are to be made then somewhere like Yarmouth may find affinity with somewhere like Norwich. But this idea is off the wall. I'd have more confidence in a link-up with the Holland across the water.'

William Nunn, leader of Breckland Council, said: 'We are acutely aware as we enter these talks that there will inevitably be a period of uncertainty for staff at all three authorities.

'What we didn't want to do was to jump straight into another partnership having already put our staff through such turbulence. Steve has recognised that he already has vacancies, which makes things easier. Ultimately they could be buying a third of our management team with the money they save from the chief executive's wage. With that, they would be buying resilience.

'I believe there is an optimum number of authorities that can work together, but I'm not sure yet what that number is.

'There is no guarantee that three could work. Services are more important than structure, but we are exploring this larger structure to see what the art of the possible is in terms of providing services to people.'

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