Councils prepare to amalgamate

Local comms PR teams across England prepare to explain new unitary structure to merged workforce.

Council comms teams are preparing for upheaval as they are transformed into unitary authorities.

District and county councils in Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Durham, Northumberland, Cornwall, Wiltshire and Shropshire will all wind down this month, to be replaced by ten unitary councils on 1 April. It is the highest number of English councils to go down the unitary route in one go since 1997.

Only Northumberland Council is reporting the need to drop any comms staff. Eight posts will be lost from the outgoing councils but this will not be by compulsory redundancy.

West Berkshire PR manager Keith Ulyatt was at Swindon Council when it changed to a unitary model in 2000. He said: 'The main issue was with internal comms - welcoming the new staff from the other councils. You have to make sure the new staff understand the values of the new council.'

Another issue is that some district council staff joining a unitary will not have experience of dealing with certain service areas such as social services, education, libraries and trading standards. 'There was a need to get up to speed as quickly as possible in those areas,' said Ulyatt.

Councils changing their names will also find a lot of investment needs to be made in gaining public recognition.

In Shropshire, where the county council and five districts are being abolished, council marketing manager Nicki Beardmore will take over as comms team manager, overseeing a comms team that will remain at 12 members.

Beardmore said: 'There is a huge amount of work going on in internal comms at the moment to make sure staff are informed about the process.'

Other unitaries being established include Central Bedfordshire, replacing a county council and two district councils. Georgina Stanton will take over as head of comms, having previously been assistant director of comms at Central Bedfordshire Council. She will lead a team of 16. Stanton pointed out the importance of developing a 'transition comms team' from the existing councils as early as possible.

Cheshire County Council is being split into two unitary councils - Cheshire West & Chester, and Cheshire East. The former will be led by head of marketing and comms Pam Bradley, the latter by comms and PR manager Jo Rozsich.

At Wiltshire Council, a head of comms is yet to be appointed. The recruit will report to director for policy, research and comms Laurie Bell.

HOW I SEE IT - David Holdstock, Head of corporate comms, Hillingdon Council and chair,LGcommunications

First and foremost, the amount of work to be done around internal comms is massive when these new authorities are formed. Getting organisations together under one culture is certainly critical when authorities join together, and that is a comms issue. There is so much to communicate.

But this should be seen positively - it is a critical time when local government comms can demonstrate the value it adds. These are all opportunities to revolutionise how we handle comms and it re-enforces our need to demonstrate value for money.

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