The way forward, but is anybody listening?

It’s unfortunate that, even when there is agreement that unitary is the best and most cost effective way to provide local government service, politicians still waste time and energy protecting their individual power bases.
I’ve yet to fathom Eric Pickles’s reasoning for sticking his oar in as soon as he got in to office in 2010, and stopping those that were in train. Possibly pre-election whinging, from Conservative councillors in those areas, fearful that they would get the boot from the electorate, was the cause of this early interference, something that has continued at a pace.

Too much time and effort is wasted by politicians protecting their own interests under the pretence of championing the interests of those who elected them. The vast majority of taxpayers care little for which part of local government provides the services they need to access. What they do care about, is how much their council tax bill will be every April. Yet despite what should be blindingly obvious, lower tier politicians spend their trying to pass on the cost to the upper tier, or refusing to work with that upper tier, because they can nothing in it for them.

As far as the taxpayer is concerned, a saving in their council tax, is a saving in the council tax, no matter where it comes from. Put another way, if a district council works with their county council, to help that county council save money, then that is as much to the credit of those district councillors as it is the county councillors, if not more. Unfortunately many councillors at the district level can only see the numbers in their own budget and refuse to acknowledge any wider savings that are being made.

However, it’s not just a case of making everything unitary and all will be well in local government. I’ve no idea how well or badly local government is working within the East Riding of Yorkshire. However, given that it’s the largest unitary in England, is divided into 26 wards and has a total of 67 councillors (Lincolnshire County Council has 77 councillors, covering only county council services) it would be very interesting to know and I don’t mean just what the council and it’s politicians would like you to believe.

Would Lincolnshire work as one large unitary? Personally, I don’t believe that it would, but that’s just my opinion. I’m always willing to be persuaded differently based on evidence that unitary councils such as East Riding of Yorkshire Council is serving its rural council taxpayers well.

Copied from the Local Government Chronicle. From a series of articles written by a senior local government officer, who remains anonymous.

Inside Out: Unitary is strength
5 March, 2014

I have always believed unitary is strength when it comes to local government. I was really pleased when it was recently reported that Labour is looking to embrace it.

I was less pleased with the government’s response. They ‘played politics’ with it rather than responding to the issue.

Granted, the move to unitary councils has never been smooth.Councils disappear, people lose their power and influence, places can feel they lose their identity, and there are always transitional costs. However, the advantages when unitary government is established far outweigh the transitory downsides.

I have worked for a district that became a unitary council, a county unitary and a district unitary. One size does not fit all circumstances. It seems to be assumed these days that unitaries should always be based on counties. This is a disservice to the strength and professionalism of district councils and will be a barrier to change in some circumstances.

There are three secrets to make moving to unitary local government successful. First, the area covered needs to make sense to residents. My hometown was moved from Lancashire to Merseyside in 1974. I still address Christmas cards to my relatives using Lancashire, 40 years later. The boundaries of unitaries need to be determined locally.

Second, there needs to be strong national leadership. The whole of England needs to be covered by unitary government. Unless this is made clear, local vested interests will fight change and drive up costs.

Finally, it needs strong local leadership, seeking consensus on change and then managing the change well. There are savings and service improvements that can be unleashed by bringing together tiers of government, but they have to be realised. They don’t happen on their own.

Given the financial struggle matched with rising demand, no element of transformational change can be dismissed. My heart sinks when I think of yet more organisational change. But maybe it needs such a shake-up to unlock the other changes we need to embrace. Unitary is strength.

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