Ways of working

Why was this important to us in 2016/17?

Changes in the way the Government funds local councils have meant we need a new approach to our finances, becoming less reliant on central budgets and more self-sufficient, including generating our own income streams. Throughout this annual report we have already highlighted ways in which we are focusing on local growth, investing in our assets and ‘behaving more commercially’ to help make the transition to self-sufficiency. However, we need to take this further by developing our organisation, our estate and our people.  All of this will mean new ways of working with public and private sector partners.

By working together as West Suffolk councils, we already know that Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury have made significant savings to taxpayers, but we need to become even more flexible and effective in the future.

This section covers our activities under the headings:

Developing our organisation – transformation, investment and commercial approaches

  • During the course of 2016/17, West Suffolk councils played a significant role in the development of proposed devolved arrangements in Norfolk and Suffolk. Councillors and officers worked together with colleagues in Suffolk and Norfolk, as well as Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, to develop proposals for a deal with Government that would look to secure additional growth for the region in the future.
  • While unfortunately, it was not possible to reach agreement between the signatory councils and the process ended in December 2016, the partnerships formed and analysis work carried out has placed us in a good position to consider the best way forward. Councils in Suffolk are continuing to explore with Government how best we can work together in promoting economic growth and the health and wellbeing of our population through greater powers, responsibilities or funding at the local level.
Suffolk-wide working
  • In 2014, public authorities in Suffolk were awarded £3.3 million of government funding from the Transformation Challenge Award (TCA) for an ambitious programme of collaboration and integration aimed at reducing costs and improving services for local people. The case study attached provides details of how this initiative is starting to see results in terms of increased collaboration and improved services.
Success of working with the Anglia Revenues Partnership
  • West Suffolk councils continue to play a key role in the Anglia Revenues Partnership (ARP), which administers Council Tax and business rates revenues, and benefits, on behalf of the seven partner councils.  The partnership continues to develop its role in line with recent changes to local government funding, providing advice and support to partner councils.
  • Highlights from ARP in 2016/17 include:
    • 2016/17 Financial Performance: Overall income was up at the end of 2016 mainly due to the success of the Bailiff Service (£295,000 higher than budget) with an additional £52,000 rechargeable income achieved. The forecast out-turn for 2016/17 showed a below budget spend of £455,000 as a result of efficiencies achieved earlier than planned (including the Bailiff service) and reduced salary costs.
    • Enforcement Agency service (bailiffs): ARP provides an enforcement agency (bailiffs) service which was launched in July 2015 for all seven partner councils. Enforcement has continued to perform well in 2016/17; collection for the first half of the year in 2016 was comparable with that collected by external Enforcement Agents before the establishment of the in-house team. ARP has continued to meet the cost of running the service through fees collection and are on target to produce a surplus this financial year. In January 2017, the total efficiencies made were £762,556 compared to a £150,000 target. The surplus will contribute to each partner councils’ efficiency targets and help them to fund essential services.
    • Empty properties: A review of all long term empty domestic properties was completed in December 2016 in order to maximise the New Homes Bonus. West Suffolk councils as well as other ARP partners have seen a reduction in the number of long term empty properties.
    • Fraud prevention: ARP were tasked with identifying and preventing fraud in the following areas; local Council Tax support, single person discount, Council Tax and business rates and, tenancy fraud, with the aim of this leading to an increase in Council Tax income. producing excellent results in identifying incorrect and fraudulent claims for discounts. They are working with housing associations to tackle Right to Buy and subletting abuse and are having success in this area.
    • Working together: ARP supported the councils’ housing options and customer service teams by supplying a scan detailing all of the customers likely to be affected by the benefit cap introduced in November 2016, in order to avoid homelessness and the cost of temporary housing. They also informed landlords and stakeholders. ARP plan to work with housing options and customer service teams to plan for the roll out of Universal Credit, which will commence in October 2017 for St Edmundsbury and September 2018 for Forest Heath.
Civil Parking Enforcement
  • West Suffolk councils are taking over responsibility for enforcing ‘on-street’ parking restriction from the police.  This can include yellow lines, loading bays, taxi rank, bus stops and school ‘keep clear’ markings.
  • The benefits of Civil Parking Enforcement (CPE) include:
  • more local accountability and the ability to be adaptable to local needs;
  • Safer traffic conditions and improved traffic flow reducing local congestion and supporting the economy; and
  • a more cost effective operation achieved by a coordinated approach between on and off street (car parks) enforcement.
  • Public sector leaders across Suffolk have sponsored this transfer of powers (already devolved to Ipswich Borough Council for over ten years), and now authorities in the East, West, Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils have agreed to the transfer of powers.
  • The set-up cost for implementing CPE will be approximately £1.1 million, which includes the review of all traffic regulation orders, inspection of all lines and signs on the highway, recruitment of staff to enforce the restrictions, and the purchase of associated new equipment and operating systems. The cost will be met by Suffolk County Council and the police.
  • West Suffolk councils will manage CPE within their geographical boundary and will assume all financial responsibility.
  • It is anticipated that CPE powers will be transferred and fully operational in West Suffolk by April 2019.
Managing our finances - 4 year settlement from government
  • The Local Government Finance Settlement for 2017/18 was announced on 15 December 2016. Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury were both successful in being included in the settlement which confirmed our figures from the four year Revenue Support Grant settlement in 2016 and gave details of the revised New Homes Bonus figures and rules.
  • In response to this news, we published an efficiency statement in support of accepting the four year deal.  The document set out that West Suffolk councils have plans and strategies in place to make ourselves more self-sufficient and resilient in the medium to long-term.
  • By introducing the four year funding package for councils, the Government aims to change the relationship between central and local government by enabling local authorities to be financed locally, through Council Tax and business rates rather than central government grants.
Our approach to investment - Solar Farm
  • In August 2016, Forest Heath District Council acquired the largest local authority owned solar farm in the UK, which will help protect the future of council services in the district. Read more about this innovative new approach to bridging the funding gap in the attached case study.
Building control
  • Our building control service has had a busy year dealing with a range of matters and we are exceeding a number of our performance targets. Some highlights from this year include:
  • Dealing with 24 dangerous structures.
  • Carrying out over 4250 site inspections.
  • Increasing our market share by 5%.
  • Registering 98% of applications within three days.
  • Checking 96% plans within ten workings days.
  • Carrying out 100% of site inspections on the day of request.
Tree services
  • In 2015, we identified an opportunity to extend our offer and introduce a tree maintenance service.
  • From the beginning this service has been a great success and in 2016 we:
    • expanded the team from two to four arborists (one of which was an apprentice), and
    • exceeded income target of £40,000 in 2016/17.
  • In this year we have proactively promoted our service to local businesses, we have purchased additional equipment and we are looking to recruit a new apprentice.

Developing the public sector estate in West Suffolk

Mildenhall Hub
  • Forest Heath District Council continues to work towards the Mildenhall Hub project which will bring together public services, making them more accessible for local people and reducing the cost of public services to the tax payer.
  • In 2016/17 we undertook a pre-application consultation which included a public exhibition and online survey. We will use the results to help inform the next stage.
  • As we progress the Mildenhall Hub and Western Way developments (set out below) we are looking to design in energy saving and renewable energy generation to reduce heat and power costs and carbon emissions based on our investment principles.
West Suffolk Operational Hub
  • The West Suffolk Operational Hub (WSOH) in Bury St Edmunds is a project to build a site containing vehicle workshops, depot, waste transfer station, household waste and recycling centre and associated facilities. The project is a partnership between the West Suffolk councils and Suffolk County Council.
  • By having these facilities on the same site we would increase efficiency, save taxpayers’ money, cut our current environmental impact and future-proof waste management for West Suffolk’s growing communities. By combining our facilities on a new single site we would also unlock valuable public sector land that could be used for development to create employment and deliver economic benefits.
  • Developing facilities to deal with the waste that we generate can be of concern to those residents who live near to any proposed site. For the West Suffolk Operational Hub project we have undertaken two public consultations before submitting a planning application and we have listened carefully to the views of local residents whilst developing our plans. This has included working closely with a Community Liaison Group comprised of local residents, parish councillors and neighbouring businesses.
Western Way Development
  • The Western Way Development is an exciting opportunity to build on the Public Service Village ethos that exists on the site in Bury St Edmunds. This ethos has been established by West Suffolk House hosting West Suffolk councils, Suffolk County Council, West Suffolk Clinical Commissioning Group and the East of England Local Government Association, among others.
  • We took the opportunity to review the Western Way Masterplan which was approved in 2016. We are currently working to develop a design brief and the associated financial modelling. The key to the effective development of the site is balancing the following objectives:
    • Unlock the value of council held assets
    • Support the council’s public sector village aspiration
    • Strengthen relationships with other public sector organisations
    • Drive efficiency, improve customer experience and public service provision, and
    • Maximise capital and revenue return to support future investment in public sector transformation.

Developing the way we work

Shared legal service In November 2016, four councils (West Suffolk councils and Mid-Suffolk and Babergh councils) established a shared legal service.  Please see the attached case study to learn more about this innovative new way of working.
Improvements to our development management service In 2015/16 we reported on opportunities for improvement that had been identified across the development management service. The service went through extensive internal and external reviews, the results of which were collated in a Planning Improvement Plan. We are now seeing the positive results from the plan as set out below. This is also backed-up by our improved and now sustained performance in 2016/17 which is evident through data in our balanced scorecard. We are now consistently meeting and exceeding our key performance indicators as a result of changing our practices and fine tuning our workflow regimes.
Planning Improvement Plan: Pre-application advice service
  • In July 2016 we introduced this new paid-for service that enables the delivery of timely advice, at the detail required, according to the type of advice requested and the complexity of the proposals under consideration. It is a good way of our customers receiving advice on a development proposal which can save time and money for customers and the councils alike, before an application has been submitted.
  • The service replaced the previous morning duty service at College Heath Road in Mildenhall and West Suffolk House in Bury St Edmunds and lined up with the very successful Planning Helpdesk Transfer to customer services in June and the newly launched Planning One Stop Shop web pages in May.
  • Officers are still available for pre-booked meetings and walk-in enquiries, which now operates all day and not just in the morning, but there has been a significant reduction in simple duty calls and enquiries. Planning technicians and officers are also receiving less general enquiries as these and the general enquiry email inbox, are now managed by customer services.
  • Customer services handle all enquiries using the Planning One-stop-shop webpages and customers are guided to self-serve information and data bases, including Find My Nearest and Public Access.
  • The general principle of self-serve relies on an up-to-date and easy to use website and clearly trained customer service advisors, supplemented with paid for non-statutory services as an alternative.
  • The service has been well received and used by agents and residents alike and projected annual income is set to exceed the budgeted income of £50,000.
Planning Improvement Plan: Paperless parishes
  • In 2016 we started working with parish councils to look at changing the way we notify them about planning applications. There is no statutory requirement to send parishes hard copies of plans, which was costing the service approximately £19,000 per year, so we wanted to look at options for sending planning applications to parishes electronically.
  • We consulted with parish councils through an online survey and at Parish Forums and Conferences. The results were used to encourage willing and able parishes to pilot this new approach to receiving planning applications.  We are pleased to report that 45% of parish notifications are now sent electronically with no paperwork being issued.
  • We are currently in the second phase of the campaign which will target further parishes that are willing to try this new approach and we are looking to use the existing online parishes to ‘buddy up’ with those still receiving paper copies of planning applications to help demonstrate the benefits. We have worked proactively across the councils, with members and the Suffolk Association of Local Councils to promote this initiative.
  • There are some challenges where broadband provision is poor but we are looking at technical options and funding options to provide equipment that could be utilised for other uses.
  • We have plans to implement a Memorandum of Understanding between Forest Heath District Council and parish and town councils to further increase our working relationship. This is aligned with the work locality officers already do to help communities to help themselves, also with the Planning Improvement Plan which looks to maximise the use of technology and, where appropriate, moving our customers towards accessing services online. In practice this means that effective lines of communication are in place with town and parish councils on all relevant planning activity such as planning applications, major developments, consultations and changes to land use.
Planning Improvement Plan: Planning agents’ forum
  • We have also been working to improve the quality of applications submitted by agents to avoid ‘double-handling’ of invalid applications and a quicker processing time for customers.
  • In February 2017, we held our first joint agents’ forum which was held with Building Control. This gave us an opportunity to introduce and publicise Local Authority Building Control Services (of which the West Suffolk service is a member organisation), provide information on e-working and what is available for self-serve on the West Suffolk website, discuss with officers about the content of a new e-newsletter and forward programme for the forum.
  • Our plans for the future include publishing agent performance figures and considering an accredited agents scheme, developing the e-newsletter and preparing for the second Agents’ Forum that is planned for later in 2017.


We look forward to updating you again later in 2017 on all the future work contributing to the success of the Performance Improvement Plan.

Paperless office
  • Further work has been carried out during 2016/17 to explore how we could reduce the amount of papers produced for meetings, for example, through the development of our online committee management system.
  • An element of the Planning Improvement Plan also looked at funding mobile working for all planning officers, who have now each been assigned a tablet computer.
  • Every new application submitted is made into an electronic file and downloaded. No paper file is created, therefore, creating efficiencies and reducing costs.

Developing our people

Supporting our staff through training
  • In the section on priority 1 (increased opportunities for economic growth), we talked about the success of our apprenticeship scheme across West Suffolk councils. We are committed to the development of our workforce and the learning of new skills, behaviours and competencies. The ways in which we have supported our staff in this year, are set out below:
  • Corporate training: in April 2016 we launched the MiHR Self-service career and development module. MiHR is the online package we use to help staff manage the training requirements, career progression and personal information.  Access to the career and development module encourages individuals to build their own personal learning plans. Staff can book themselves on training as required, update their learning records and review their development requirements for the future. Since introducing this module the number of training places being taken has increased. We have 629 staff and during this year there has been a total of 923 attendances of 117 corporate training sessions held throughout the organisation.
  • Collaborative working with the other councils across Suffolk has continued. The 21st century manager programme has been very successful and offered access to classroom and on-line training for those new to management roles and the opportunity to network with managers across the county. Collaborative working is illustrated by the fact that the councils’ Families and Communities team includes Suffolk County Council staff and that both organisations had a flexible and open-minded approach to recruitment and management of staff. Other agencies are interested in joining this team which focuses on working for and with a locality and a community, regardless of the employing authority.
  • Linked to the publication of the mental health wellbeing policy, MIND was commissioned to deliver a series of training events for individual staff and a series for managers entitled “Emotional wellbeing – a managers toolkit” (see further information below). To date, 103 staff and managers have accessed this programme.
  • Professional development: We have had 32 individuals work towards accredited professional qualifications in specialist subject areas. The West Suffolk talent management programme offers access to professional qualifications ranging from Masters degrees and Foundation degrees to Institute of Leadership and Management at level three and five.
  • This is just part of the continuous professional development offer which runs throughout all the service areas. It is supported with time and resources available to those who take the opportunity to develop themselves.
Improving wellbeing and health - introduced mental health at work policy and working with Suffolk and Norfolk Mind–healthier communities
  • Four new people policies were introduced in September 2016 in order to support our staff: Mentoring, Mediation, The Workplace Wellbeing Strategy and Mental Health at Work. West Suffolk councils have made a commitment to the Suffolk Workplace Wellbeing Charter which focuses on an organisation’s commitment to the wellbeing of staff. To deliver this we are working with our partners: Suffolk County Council, East of England Local Government Association, occupational health providers, neighbouring local authorities, hospitals including Ipswich and Addenbrooke’s and the Clinical Commissioning Group.
  • One of the key areas of commitment is mental health. To deliver this commitment we are working closely with both Suffolk and Norfolk MIND to support staff and managers alongside a number of national initiatives such as Mental Health at Work week and Mental Health at Work Day.
  • The wellbeing of our staff can impact on our communities not only through the roles our staff do but also through their families and wider community links.
Councillor learning and development
  • Through the Joint Member Development Group we have offered a varied programme of events including specialist licensing training and five sessions on development management with internal and external speakers. We are working hard to ensure that councillors have the key information they need to support their communities and work as local ward members. We have offered individual induction advice for those elected in by-elections.
  • In this year a total of 11 development events have been held with 163 attendances.