Earlier today two pieces of news emerged that both relate to local Councils albeit in very different ways. The first was the sad news that ex Council leader of Oxford County Council Keith Mitchell has died. I worked with Keith as part of the South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA) from my involvement in 2002 until its closure in 2009. When I first joined Keith was the Chairman and indeed in 2004 I became one of the Vice Chairs, a role that I remained in until 2009 when SEERA ended. I recall Keith stepped down as the Chairman in 2007 but he remained involved in the Assembly afterwards. So we were joint directors of SEERA for around 3 years. Throughout that time I really enjoyed working with him, even though our intuitive political views were different and our views about the involvement of people from outside of the Councils were also very different. The second piece of news was the publication in the County Councils Network which today published this article which is under the rather long title “New analysis reveals that single unitary councils could deliver £3bn saving over five years and ‘maximise’ the benefits of economic growth and housing policy”. The existing unitary Councils are the Green areas on the map shown next to Keith Mitchell’s picture.
I personally have had the privilege to work with a number of local authorities over a 13 year period when I worked for a network of faith based charities or churches from 2001 to 2014. This included my time in SEERA when there were 73 County and either District or Borough Councils along with three Town or Parish Councils from across the South East area. My other work over this 13 year period was more local and related to Sussex which involves 13 Councils at a District or Borough level and two County Councils. One of the Borough Councils had become a Unitary Council before my work began, but it was my own personal Borough Council where I have lived for 42 years so I have had the opportunity to experience how in Brighton and Hove we went from two Borough Councils that were both part of East Sussex County Council and then merged into one Borough Council and very soon after that it was set up as a Unitary Council. My time in this role also involved working with the far more numerous 50 or so Town and Parish Councils across Sussex and it was slightly concerning that the article only referred to the two upper tier Councils and did not refer to the base level Councils. It would also be very dangerous to base the way forward as if Brighton and Hove is typical of the Unitary Councils. That said my time in SEERA allowed me the chance to find out about Medway Council.
The article from CCN includes the following introduction:
Today the County Councils Network (CCN) publishes new independent evidence on the implications of local government reorganisation in two-tier shire counties ahead of the publication of the government’s ‘devolution and local recovery’ white paper. With councils in shire counties facing billions in rising costs for care services, alongside financial deficits caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, the study from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) shows merging district and county councils in each area into a single unitary council could save £2.94bn over five years nationally.
and it goes on to say that:
CCN says that the report outlines a ‘compelling’ financial case for the creation of more single county unitaries in areas where councils seek reorganisation. This will help ‘safeguard’ council services in the wake of the pandemic, while ensuring councils are of the necessary size to drive forward the economic recovery and devolution agendas. But the network warned that an arbitrary population limit in the White Paper would lead to a ‘missed opportunity’ and ‘worse deal for local taxpayers’, creating ‘significant risks’ and instability in vital care services, and holding back the levelling up agenda.
What I find most disappointing is that this article does not look for other solutions that could also save money to a similar extent. Indeed along with the saving of public money by bringing together local Councils, there is also the prospect to remove some of the elements from the national Government and to re visit the concept of a series of regional Governments which in some parts of the UK such as London, Manchester, Sheffield are already partly developed. Now would be a good time to consider these as a way of enabling the three levels of local Government along with the national Government to move functions to a place that is the most efficient. Given the news today from CCN and the news of Keith Mitchell’s death, this seems like a very good time to open up these ideas.
A very helpful post to those of us trying to make sense of this headlong rush to unitarization. I am very concerned about the loss of local identity under a more centralized system, particularly the drop in local engagement once centres of decision-making are not on the doorstep. I also challenge the assumption of economies of scale in the PWC report – clearly they have a vested interest in promoting large entities that will need their consultants, but bigger is not necessarily better at any level – there are such things as diseconomies of scale for example. Is there any history of opposing unitarization in the authorities who have been forced down that route? If so, where did this opposition come from and on what grounds was it made?
A fantastic response Christine, it would be great to see this issue raised with some of the County Council leaders!
Yes but who has the political muscle to raise it and influence the result. It’s our county council leader who’s pushing for this and anyone I mention it to is blissfully unaware.