Devon will ‘not lead the charge’ to become a Unitary council

Senior Devon councillors have reiterated they have no desire to ‘lead the charge towards becoming a Unitary’ and reopen the arguments over Local Government reorganisation.

[A majority of Somerset county councillors have voted (29 July) to abolish themselves and create a new unitary authority for the whole county.

Council leader David Fothergill has put forward the One Somerset business case, which would see Somerset’s five existing councils abolished and replaced by May 2022.

The business case will now be submitted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which will decide whether or not Somerset can formally proceed towards a new unitary authority.

Dorset and Cornwall are already unitary authorities – Owl] 

Devon will ‘not lead the charge’ to become a Unitary council

Daniel Clark 

The Government are set to publish a Devolution White paper this Autumn with speculation it would see county and district councils – the top tiers of authority – be invited to propose merging their powers and become Unitary councils.

This week, a majority of Somerset county councillors voted to abolish themselves and create a new unitary authority for the whole county, which would see Somerset’s five existing councils abolished and replaced by May 2022, while discussions are taking place across the country.

From 2007 to 2010, there was a strong possibility that Devon’s two-tier council structure might be reorganised, with either a Unitary authority for the whole of Devon created, or a second option that would have seen Exeter granted Unitary status. The latter of those was given the go-ahead in 2010, only for the reorganisation to be reversed when the Conservative Government came into power following the General Election.

At last Thursday’s full Devon County Council meeting, Cllr Alan Connett, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, asked the leader of the council, Cllr John Hart, for his view on the retention of the current system of district and county councils.

Cllr Hart said that it was something that looked like it may raise its head again and he was waiting to see what the Government says in the white paper this Autumn, but added: “I have maintained that if they don’t insist we go to Unitary model, I will not lead, a charge, and all it will do is reactivate the fighting.

“It would divide Devon up and then things get a bit more complicated. Devon has the size and capacity to work with the districts and to serve the people. I have no wish to open up a guerrilla war and start something and get us into a position that might not be resolved in the short term and argue with the districts for years on end and ruin the current good relationship.

“We will wait until September and then we will talk before anything happens, and hope there will be no backdoor deals from their side and as there won’t be any from ours.”

Cllr Connett said he was grateful that Cllr Hart ‘won’t lead a charge and that Devon County Council isn’t involved in predatory works’. He added: “It is best to wait for the paper and I think we need to avoid a separate approach and need to look at what is right for Devon and do what is the best for the residents. We must avoid what we did before when so much was spent to achieve so little for the people of Devon.”

Cllr Rob Hannaford, leader of the Labour group, added: “There is clearly no appetite in Devon for another costly and disruptive reorganisation of our local government. We have just seen, during the first wave of the pandemic, how well all levels of local government in Devon have worked together to respond, and with all the huge operational, financial, economic and social pressures that we are coping with, this is really the last thing we need to consider.

“To blow everything up now would be an act of political vandalism to our local communities, and a terrible barrier to making the progress that we need to make across the whole county.

“The real issues facing local government here in Devon are a lack of devolved powers to the existing council, gross underfunding, the ability to plan and develop services for the long term, and a lack of trust from central government. Its emphatically not local government reorganisation.

“We don’t want one huge hollowed out remote giant county council unitary with a massive democratic deficit. We also don’t want our county divided into four quarters, that would make no Sense to the people they are supposed to serve and represent.

“Let us fight for Devon, and its residents, through our existing local government family, rather than starting another toxic unitary war, that will benefit no one.”

Cllr Julian Brazil said that ‘Unitary by revolution’ was something that no-one wanted, but proposals to evolve towards one could be explored and that more shared services among the councils would be a way of saving money, with many senior officers doing the same job.