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'How we plan to save £109million' - a full-length interview with Staffordshire County Council's deputy leader Ian Parry

By Staffordshire Newsletter  |  Posted: December 11, 2013

By Robin Scott

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THE NEWSLETTER talked to Staffordshire County Council deputy leader and cabinet member for finance and transformation, Ian Parry, following the announcement of the council's medium term financial strategy.

"We are announcing to our cabinet the papers released today, covering our medium term financial strategy," said Mr Parry.

"Over the next five years our savings target is £109million. Next year we aim to save taxpayers £20million and that will be followed the next year by about £30million, £30million and then £10million, that's the way it flexes.

"That's challenging," he said. "We've saved £130million over the past four years and now we're looking to the next phase if you like.

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"So, as in the past, we're not looking to apply a 'cut and close' strategy to what we do, but we're very keen on seeing how we can remodel or redesign services, that can deliver what people need in a way that they want and that can be done at lower cost.

"So that might not always mean that we provide the service, it might be through a different organisation, a different channel.

"It might mean the service doesn't look exactly the same, but what we will do is design it so it meets the needs of those people who need it," he said.

Councillor Parry said one of the key things the council was looking at was the way in which it provided youth services.

"A consultation will start on that in January that if it is approved at cabinet next Wednesday," he said. "We've been speaking to staff, not as part of a formal consultation, that will be done in public in the New Year, but we are obviously advising staff of what we are planning to do at Cabinet before they read it in the newspaper."

"What we have looked at and discovered - not really a surprise - but our youth services are in a fairly traditional format, and most councils have changed that over time.

"We think that there are opportunities here to provide services, or provide opportunities for young people that may not currently exist," said Mr Parry. "What they are telling us is that the opportunities that we provide through our service are not what they want.

"Four out of five young people don't go anywhere near County Council-run services for young people and over 90-odd per cent, 95 per cent of all the things that young people do do - which is everything from scouts, guides, brownies etc, uniform services, to swimming clubs, football, cricket, rugby, drama activities, and all the sorts of things that young people get up to and that young people want - are provided by other bodies that don't cost taxpayers anything."

Councillor Parry said the cost per young person of youth services was around £350 compared to services provided by organisations supported by the county council which came it at around £9 per young person.

"£9 vs £350 for pretty much the same thing, that's a no-brainer," he said. "So we think, actually, we can save about £4.5million on the cost of those youth services if you provide them differently and in a way that young people tell us they want.

"So rather than us saying, 'this is a youth service' and it's like a youth club on a Tuesday night, and that kind of traditional format, young people are saying, 'we don't want that, actually we want something that is more challenging, more exciting and more interesting and supports what we want to do'."

Mr Parry said part of the coming consultation would be whether the buildings currently housing youth clubs were needed in the future.

"Do we need traditional building-based services? Or do we need something that's somewhere else?"

"Lots of things young people do aren't in buildings," he said. "When you play badminton or go swimming or whatever, if you go to scouts and guides on a friday night, they will probably be in a building somewhere, but are the buildings that we have got fit for purpose?

"Are they economical?

"So we need to look at those things. And if they're not, can we do something different?"

Mr Parry said traditionally youth services provided by the county council came in the form of youth clubs of which the county council operates 38 across Staffordshire.

"I'm sure you've all been to a youth centre or youth club in your life ... no, you haven't have you?

"Well there you go, you're probably typical of most young people, who don't go anywhere near a youth club," he said. "I've got two children and neither did they, and neither did I.

"Most young people don't go anywhere near them. They're expensive to run and they don't open when young people want them necessarily.

"But there are a massive range of opportunities out there for young people to do other things and we think, with reducing the costs of all of this, means that we can also provide young people with a different service that they will enjoy."

Mr Parry said out of 75,000 people in Stafford only one in four currently used youth services offered by the county council.

"That's quite small percentage," he said. "There's a lot of young people that don't access anything, they're at home doing their geography homework or whatever.

"At the moment young people can do a wide range of things.

"95 per cent of the opportunities of things that young people can do are out there provided by other people and don't cost the taxpayer a penny. "Some things we invest in through umbrella organisations and they fill gaps for young people where there's a society growing up there or an opportunity growing up there, and they will provide some support around that.

"I think what we will do is provide services for those young people that they want."

Mr Parry accepted that there would always be some young people who wanted to go to youth centres.

"That's fine and there are plenty of youth centres out there and they are run by church groups and community groups and parish councils and all sorts of people," he said. "There's probably more youth centres out there provided by other organisations than there are by the county council.

"We just asked ourselves why do we need to be in the business of youth centres when there's quite a range of things out there that young people do actively want?

"If there is a need in any given community for a youth centre and the community is willing to get involved with us in that, then we will think of ways of how that could be provided."

Mr Parry said the proposal to overhaul youth services offered by the county council would save around £4.5million.

"Next year it's half a million and the year after it's £2million and the year after that it's £2.6million," he said. "In total we will want to save between £2 and £3million out of it depending on the consultation.

"It's difficult to give you an exact figure because it depends on the consultation.

"The total spend at the moment on that particular service is £6million, and we're looking to save I would say roughly half of that," he said. "It will build over the next five years, but next year because we will start the consultation in January, we won't be able to start implementing this until well into the year, so we won't achieve those savings next year, it will be the year after and the year after that that we start to see it.

Mr Parry said 'a range of things' would help the county council to save the remainder of its £20million target over the next year.

"Going through the areas we are involved in and trying to reshape and remodel them," he said. "What we are trying to avoid is saying 'OK, we need to save X per cent of everybody's budget, go away and do X per cent'.

"I know some councils do that but it's not the approach we take.

"We take a service area and say 'how could you provide this, still with the same outcomes and do it at a lower cost?'.

"What would that model look like and can you still provide that service?"

"Secondly, what can we do in terms of income generation?

"So, Entrust for example, the joint venture company we have brings us dividends.

"What can we do to reduce the cost of operations here?" he said. "For example, building costs are one of our high cost areas and what we are doing there is we're just in the process of working with a property partner that will, first of all, help us to reduce the cost of our building needs, sell surplus buildings and try to generate an income from some of those buildings where we think there is an income generating opportunity.

Councillor Parry admitted some of those buildings that might be sold to generate income were those currently used as youth centres by the county council.

"The bigger problem that we have got is that we've got quite a surplus of assets now that aren't utitlised sitting there costing taxpayers money, which we think is not good value, so what we want to do is see how we can either utilise or dispose of those assets," he said. "Then we've got lots of buildings where they probably aren't fully utilised so, can we do some sharing and integration that means that actually we've got less buildings overall and we can sell the ones we don't need and we lower the costs across all of the estate.

"So, there might be a few youth centres in there at the end of the day, I can't guarantee there won't, more than likely there will be but who knows, it depends on the building."

"We don't think we've necessarily got the capacity and the level of expertise we want to be able to do this on our own," said Mr Parry. "So we are going through a procurement process at the moment to attract a third party that would join with us and Staffordshire Police in a venture that says 'let's have a look at our property and the polices property' to see if, first of all, we can't reduce the costs and secondly, dispose and generate income and thirdly, how can we use it to invest in jobs and also generate income.

"So, income-generating opportunities are there and we're not looking for bits and pieces, we're not looking to compete with anybody, we're just looking to see what there is in our balance sheet that allows us to generate some more income."

Mr Parry suggested Staffordshire County Council was unique in England in that it had reduced its size and costs and at the same time transferred the highest number of people overnight to potentially more secure jobs and on the same salary.

"We've done that by being innovative," he said. "We've created ideas around the joint-venture that we created, the integrated health trust - joining health and social care together - we've saved money, we've maintained services and actually I think we've secured more jobs.

"In Staffordshire we have the lowest job-seeker allowance in the region and the lowest number of unemployed," he said. "We believe it's on par with the South-East of England and that says a great deal about what we've achieved as a council in terms of attracting income and investment and the more people that are in work, the less people are using public sector services."

"We would expect that through consultation and change it might mean at the end of the day that we require less posts to do that work, so what we tend to do, if we need to do, is first see if anybody wants voluntary redundancy.

"Secondly, is there any person identified under consultation that can go into our redeployment, before then we make redundancies.

"Out of the 6,000 posts that have been reduced, we've made less than 500 redundant and I think that's farily unique if not totally unique.

"I think the number of people employed directly by the county council has reduced from around about 12,000 to around about 6,000 and in that we have only made 500 compulsory redundancies.

"That's because most of those people in those 6,000 jobs have gone into more secure jobs with other organisations that we are in partnership with.

Councillor Parry said it was 'difficult to say' how many people might face redundancy or redeployment under the scheme announced today because of the nature of the coming consultation.

"But I'm fairly sure that there will be fewer posts," he said. "I think we are talking relatively small numbers at the end of the day.

"I know the news has been focused on places like Birmingham with its thousand-plus redundancies, but we're not looking at anything like that kind of scale.

"We believe in keeping redundancies to an absolute minimum and doing anything we can to ensure that people stay employed."

"What we do here, we call it commissioning, so first of all we say, what is it you're trying to do here, what's the service you're trying to provide, what is the problem you are trying to solve or what is it that you are trying to do?

"That's the first question," he said. "Then we ask, who is best to provide it and what does that look like. So we remodel that service and then say and what do you need to provide that.

"It may well be that we're not the best people to do it, and if people find a third party, with a different logo, then that's fine.

"What it might mean, as we have done with multiple things now, is that we TUPE people into that organisation and its provided at lower costs."

"We're not suggesting we are inefficient as an organisation, but often when you take things out of an organisation, you can lower costs.

Mr Parry said the council would be looking into everything part of their coming plans in detail.

"Everything we do we will be looking at," he said. "This is a long-term project.

" Everything we do, we will look to see if we can provide it in a more cost-effective way and in a remodelled way.

"What we're not going to say today is, here's a list of cuts and closures for you," he said. "We are looking at all of our services areas and saying, we recognise here we have got some pressures.

"We recognise here we have got some opportunities to do things differently.

Councillor Parry said it was 'probably right' to let people know about the plans for youth services because the consultation was planned to begin in the New Year if approved by the Cabinet next week.

"The next things we will start to look at we will be obviously, consulting on them, but when we do that we will announce those, we will say that we are looking at these areas and this is what we plan to do," he said.

"We still have a draft budget together, but we are working towards a council tax freeze, which is what we want to do. our ambition is to freeze council tax next year. But we haven't completely nailed the budget in terms of the assurances about all the areas of savings that we believe confidently that we can achieve next year," he said. "We haven't had all the details in terms of government funding yet either.

Councillor Parry declined to provide a list of the areas where cuts could be expected.

"You need to go to Birmingham or Walsall if that's what you want.

"That's how they do it down there," he said. "That aint the way we roll in Staffordshire."

"Other councils will go around to all their departments and say you lot save 10 per cent each and come back to us with your proposals on how you're going to save 10 per cent.

"We haven't done that.," he said. "We look at this as one council, and we have what we call our innovation and efficiency board.

"Which means we go through the organisation and say how can we do this differently that will provide the same or better service or an acceptable service at a cost."

"I know that makes your life difficult because that's bloody difficult to explain to the public," said Mr Parry. "What you would really like is a story that says Staffordshire County Council are saving this much money and having to cut this much money, so have cut X, Y and Z services.

"I haven't got a story like that for you."

"What we are saying is this is a long-term thing, we all know it's a challenge.

"You can either see this as an opportunity to shape services in the future, to shape the organisation," he said. "The council we had four years ago is a council we couldn't afford, as a public, as a community.

"We can't afford the old councils that were in my view over-resourced, and we've stripped out £130million from this place and I don't believe we've affected in any way negatively, any services that we provide.

"So it demonstrates that this can be done and I think if we are careful and go on that journey and use creativity and care and competence, we can reduce this organisation even further."

Mr Parry said that might mean that some services in the future were not provided by the county council.

"It might mean that services that people don't really need we don't provide anymore if that's what people tell us," he said. "Certainly it doesn't mean that anybody who needs care and support in this county won't get it.

"That's not what we're about, that's a priority for us.

"People that need us most, we will be there for them but it will be appropriate care and it will be care that's in consultation with you and your family."

Mr Parry highlighted the withdrawal of some county council-run daycare centres as an example of this method in practice.

"We have withdrawn from some of those, but with every one of them, we haven't announced a closure," he said. " We have said we would like to talk to everyone that comes to this centre and ask you what you would really like, is it this or is it something better?

"Is it something different?

"And in each one of those cases, we have actually transferred everyone into a different provision, been able to close the centre and people were happy," he said. "Often you can't really ask for something if you don't know it exists, what we have to do is work with people and show them what other opportunities there are."

Councillor Parry said the county council had not yet identified where they were going to make the necessary savings.

"Because it's a process," he said. "Because what we try to do is identify areas where we think there's a saving to be made if we do it differently. "What we're not saying is cut that and save us half a million quid.

"We're saying there's probably half a million quid you could save on that if you do it differently.

"What we then need to do is build up a business case around that.

"How does that get done, how do you work that up and then how do you deliver those?

"We have a transformation process here which doesn't mean you cut things," said Mr Parry. "You transform them."

"Do you want a council like Staffordshire that does it that way or do you want a council that says yeah, we're going to close all these things and everyone can just suck on it?"

Councillor Parry said the plan also identified areas where there were spending pressures, where more money would be needed in the future.

Councillor Parry said he was not critical of the budget cuts from central government.

"We're George Osbourne's favourite council," he said. "We're certainly Eric Pickles' favourite council.

"I think people would tell you they do believe in smaller councils, that we don't need the big old-fashioned expensive councils that we had in the past," he said. "I think this is an opportunity to focus on what's really important.

"If you think of how we live our lives today, all this technology around us, society has moved on and you've got these council who haven't moved on as quickly.

"Some of the stuff that we're doing in terms of using technology and different ways of doing working - people criticise us for building a new office over there [Staffordshire Place], but actually what that did was massively improve productivity and performance.

"In terms of the radical transformation process that we have been through, that's been a tremendous support to us and the way people have worked together," he said. "It's cost-neutral, and it saves us half a million quid a year, plus another, around £300,000 in other operating costs.

"I mean, why wouldn't you have done that? Surely that's a great deal for taxpayers?

"But then people see it they say 'oh they've spent all this money on this building up there'," he said. "Facts are different than perceptions some times."

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  • zoompad  |  December 24 2013, 11:17AM

    What a pity Ian Parry and his colleagues are choosing to cut one of the services which is a credit to Staffordshire, the excellent youth services and youth clubs. I can't understand why these grass roots services are being slashed while at the same time more money is being pumped into the secret family courts and forced adoption/fostering services which dole out vast amounts of money per week (according to Acorn Fosterings glossy flier up to £520 per week). Isn't it better to spend a fraction of the money to help families stay together by providing good services for families rather than spending huge amounts on remedial services? I don't understand the economics behind this move, it doesn't make any sense.

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