As financial constraints continue, Features Editor Joe Wyatt explores the ways in which the nation’s councils are innovating their municipal fleets to protect frontline services.

The challenges represented by austerity in the public sector have been many and varied. In the years following the announcement in 2008 by then-Prime Minister David Cameron that the UK would be entering “an age of austerity”, the Government announced intended public spending cuts of £81 billion by 2014/15. Since then, local councils and authorities have borne the brunt of cuts, receiving slashes in funding of up to 40% with further cuts expected in the next five years. The largest contraction in public finances in recent memory has forced fleet transport managers to drastically reduce their capital expenditure whilst avoiding impact to frontline services in line with high public expectations. This, compounded by intense media scrutiny over failings by “cash-strapped councils”, has painted a depressing picture of the public sector in recent times. However, while there have undeniably been difficulties, the most successful councils post-austerity have been the ones to embrace the ‘opportunities’ presented by budget cuts to innovate and streamline their operations. Rather than purely focusing on cuts, councils are redesigning the ways in which they manage, operate and carry out their services.

This was certainly the case for a representative from a local council in the north of England whom I spoke to.

“We have felt the effects of austerity since around 2010-2011. It led to significant changes at the council, with a reduction in staff size of approximately 30% which equated to around 2000-2500 people,” said the spokesperson. “Every service that required any number of vehicles had to apply for approval and specify their exact requirements, which led to cuts. And of course, the services had to be adapted to reflect that.”

But simply reducing staff numbers and fleet size does not singularly constitute a holistic response to austerity; instead, forging a long-term, strategic response that evaluates exactly how services are designed and delivered is becoming essential for councils nationwide.

“Our approach to responding to austerity centred around both reducing the number of vehicles on the road and changing the way in which they operate and collaborate,” continued the spokesperson.

For the council in question, this was carried out through a comprehensive “route optimisation exercise” for the entire operational fleet. For example, their fleet of school transport buses at one time operated over 15 separate routes. Following the review, several shorter routes were amalgamated into longer ones and buses with larger capacity were provided to accommodate for greater passenger numbers. The total number of buses was then reduced from 16 to 11.

Mike Newall, Head of Neighbourhood Services at South Ayrshire Council.
Mike Newall, Head of Neighbourhood Services at South Ayrshire Council.

“We achieved exactly what a cost-cutting exercise aims to do; lower costs, improve efficiencies and still offer the same or better service. After a period of adapting to the new pressures, our drivers and operators are now very much on board.”

Similar operational efficiencies have been achieved by South Ayrshire Council through the introduction of double shift patterns, meaning waste collection vehicles operate both an early and a late shift, as opposed to finishing mid-afternoon.

Mike Newall, Head of Neighbourhood Services, said: “We simply had to get smarter at how we worked so that we could achieve the necessary savings, while protecting jobs, minimising the disruption to households, and maximising the use of all our resources.”

The waste management operations team at South Ayrshire Council also carried out a route optimisation exercise. Around five years ago, all the details of their refuse collection routes were placed into a software package by Webaspx. The software then formulated optimised routes that, along with other efficiency measures, meant refuse vehicles began to collect in both rural and urban areas, as opposed to the previous use of designated rural trucks. This led to, in statistics published by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and Ricardo-AEA in 2015, a reduction in the number of collection routes from 94 to 54, three fewer vehicles in the fleet, and an annual saving of around £300,000.

This kind of strategic shift should be considered by both local authorities and private sector firms alike. For the former, their potential for creating streamlined services and cost savings is evident; whilst for the latter, the importance of providing vehicles that respond to councils’ exact feature specifications and service schedules cannot be overstated.
One of the refuse collection vehicles involved in the route optimisation exercise carried out by South Ayrshire Council.
One of the refuse collection vehicles involved in the route optimisation exercise carried out by South Ayrshire Council.

For example, following route optimisation, navigating traditionally inaccessible rural areas with non-specialised vehicles became an issue that South Ayrshire Council had to account for.

“We had to ensure the specification of our leased vehicles allowed us to adapt to this changing working environment with ease and ensured we could continue to deliver for our customers. For example, we had to ensure the vehicles we used in hard-to-reach rural areas had a narrow track body to give us greater access to rural properties, farm road ends and small village streets. It’s been a lot of work, but we’ve got to the other side and continue to provide high-quality services while achieving challenging financial targets.”

The spokesperson from the northern English council similarly commented: “There are many features we focus on during vehicle procurement; versatility, environmental sustainability, up-to-date technology, health and safety measures, and that [the vehicles] represent the best financial value. The primary quality we focus on however is that they will be fit for purpose.”

It is clear that austerity has represented unprecedented difficulties for fleet managers and local councils across the nation. There have undoubtedly been some shortfalls in the early years, but what is equally certain is that budget cuts have not been uniformly damaging to service provision. The most ambitious of councils have embraced austerity as a driving force for innovation, and an opportunity to become more efficient and effective in their work. Councils that rise to the challenge by streamlining operating practices, employing new technologies, making precise strategic shifts and only making cuts where absolutely necessary can continue to provide high quality municipal services.

Follow Joe Wyatt on Twitter: @joemarkwyatt

As it appeared in FACTS 129: