In February Cornwall received approval for the structural change order for its newly formed unitary authority, setting in motion the plan to merge six district councils with the county council to form a local authority with a combined budget of £1.2bn by April 2009.
Such a merger will create a raft of legal issues, the biggest of which will be staffing. The latest information is that all staff will transfer by virtue of a Tupe transfer to Cornwall County Council on 1 April 2009. The county council will then implement its new structure and deal with the attendant issues that arise.
Staff from across the seven councils are now employed under varying contractual terms and conditions, so the most pressing issue is likely to be the harmonisation of contractual agreements. Equal pay issues may also arise as part of the process.
Property issues are more straightforward as all the property of the six districts will vest by operation of law in the county council. Budget preparation is being dealt with by a working group of officers from within the authority.
The aspirations of the new unitary authority for Cornwall make clear business sense for anyone interacting with it. Lawyers will no longer be dealing with the aspirations and policies of seven different councils. This should enable streamlined processes and procedures – a clear example is the negotiation of planning obligations. The proposed organisation aims to provide a stronger voice for Cornwall. In a business context, if the whole region responds as one to issues of significance this will produce a more consolidated and meaningful response.
The issue for lawyers is how to work alongside this changing environment and provide continuity for clients. Lawyers from across the public sector in health, police and local government could be working together on common aims and objectives.
Maintaining front-line service standards while the councils merge will be challenging, particularly in the provision of planning advice ;and ;the ;determination ;of applications.
It is useful to consider how some of the key issues affecting Cornwall will be dealt with in this time.
The county council and the districts are all at different stages of the Local Development Framework (LDF) process. This process would have resulted in some 43 documents comprising the LDF. A decision has now been taken to produce a set of the key documents on a Cornwall-wide basis – a process that is not going to be terribly quick. So for the next 18 months the business community and the lawyers will operate in the midst of an emerging planning framework.
There are also proposals to split Cornwall into three or four geographic areas with their own local committees to determine planning applications.
The most appropriate approach would be to combine adjacent district council areas and provide three areas across Cornwall, but to make this work the planning service in Cornwall will need reconfiguration. This will lead to improved coordination and interaction with the lawyers, agents and business community who use the service.
Delivery of services
Clearly a strategic approach will be identified to rationalise the current arrangement of frontline services, such as refuse collection, street sweeping and grounds maintenance. Some are carried out in-house, others are externalised services with contracts of varying lengths. This is a significant undertaking with the costs for each of the six districts running into millions of pounds a year. This is an opportunity for providers as well as advisers.
The change in Cornwall will be significant, creating both challenges and opportunities for everyone involved. The path to the ideal solution needs patience and genuine involvement from the business and legal community. nGareth Pinwell is a partner and head of planning at Foot Anstey. He was previously chief executive of Restormel Borough Council