Second midlands county looks to unitary route

Copied from Local Government Online
Second midlands county looks to unitary route
18 February, 2014 | By Mark Smulian

Proposals by Warwickshire CC to start a public debate on county unitary status come only a week after Leicestershire CC said a county unitary there could save £30m a year.

Conversion to county unitary status is also being considered in West Sussex despite lack of government enthusiasm for the model.

Seven counties converted under the previous government, but similar plans for Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk were halted by Eric Pickles in 2010 in one of his first acts as communities and local government secretary.

Warwickshire chief executive Jim Graham’s (pictured) report said the county needed to save £92m over four years and “unitary local government merits further exploration”.

If Warwickshire’s six councils were cut to one or two unitaries, fewer than 100 councillors would be needed, against 276 at present, and service delivery could be better integrated with less spent on administration.

Savings could reach £17m a year with a single unitary council, or £12m a year with two.

Mr Graham cited savings from councils that converted five years ago of an average of £15.6m a year.

The two-unitary option is designed to deal with different economic conditions in the county’s urban north and rural south.

Mr Graham said a change to unitary status needed government consent and while the coalition was “not actively inviting submissions within this term of Parliament, this could change beyond May 2015, and this does not preclude proposals generated locally from being put forward to government”.

The idea had a hostile reception from two district leaders. Nuneaton & Bedworth BC’s Dennis Harvey (Lab) said: “The borough council recently voted to oppose any idea of a unitary Warwickshire, which we believe is an unnecessary diversion from the savage cuts being made by the county to essential services.”

Rugby BC leader Craig Humphreys (Con) said: “I’m not sure why the county is spending time on something that can’t come to fruition, as some districts oppose it. We should not create remote monoliths.”

He said the position was complicated by Stratford-upon-Avon DC having set up shared services with Cherwell and South Northamptonshire DCs, neither of which is in Warwickshire.

West Sussex last week decided to canvass views on the unitary idea. Leader Louise Goldsmith (Con) said: “While one of the arguments for this approach is the money any such move would save – and that is potentially correct – there would be a considerable cost to making it happen in the first place. This is not a decision for the county council to arrogantly make without any reference or dialogue with our partners and residents.”

Local government minister Brandon Lewis poured cold water on the move towards unitaries.

“One of the first acts of the coalition government was to legislate to scrap the last administration’s plans for top-down unitary local government restructuring,” he said.

“Such top-down upheavals would have been expensive and disruptive, distracting from the need to promote growth and to tackle the deficit left by the last administration. This stance is, and remains, government policy. There is great potential for more locally led joint working and sharing of services in local government.”

Gloucestershire last autumn established a working group to explore the county unitary idea, but Brian Oostuysen (Lab), overview and scrutiny chair, said: “We met with all six district councils and there wasn’t unanimous support to move towards a unitary authority.”

READERS’ COMMENTS (1)

Roger | 19-Feb-2014 6:17 pm
As an administrative model, there’s probably little doubt that unitary is more cost effective than 2 tier can ever be.
Eric Pickles’s constant undermining of local government (with an occasional pause to equally and spitefully undermine the EA) is likely to see any reduction in democratic representation, go virtually un-noticed by the public until it’s too late.
Such undermining must surely come from expecting ‘volunteer scoutmasters’ to represent several thousands of taxpayers across the whole spectrum of local government.
Before any unitary councillors start sounding off, I’d like them to pause and think carefully if they really do believe that they can deal with issues in exactly the same way as district councillors do. If they can, is it because their unitary authority offers them a far greater level of admin support, than any small district council could dream of?
I actually agree that single tier authorities are better value and far less confusing and frustrating for the taxpayer. However, I don’t agree that you can simply cull every district councillor and pass on this work to the current county councillors. Nor do I believe that you can simply vacate every district council office and draw everything into county hall.
Finally, have all those councils that have gone down the unitary route, passed on their projected savings to their taxpayers, via substantial reductions in their council tax? Or, have they come up with token reductions, whilst the remained has been spent on so called service improvements?

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