The leader of Torbay Council has joined a call to delay a massive reorganisation of local government.
Steve Darling has signed a letter from Liberal Democrat councillors warning the shake-up would be an “unwelcome distraction” from efforts to tackle Covid-19 and support economic recovery.
They say they oppose any restructuring imposed on communities which would take decision-making further away from voters.
Devon is expected to be next in line in the Westcountry for a reorganisation to dismantle the currently two-level set-up in some parts of the county.
And that could also trigger a change in Torbay, which is one of the country’s smallest unitary authorities.
A recent report by the County Councils Network said replacing the two-tier system across England could save up to £3billion over five years.
Torbay (population 136,000) and Plymouth (population 263,000), have single-tier unitary authorities responsible for all services.
But the rest of the county is covered by Exeter-based Devon County Council providing services such as education, social services and highways.
There are eight district councils providing services such as planning, housing and leisure.
Many areas also have parish and town councils, with responsibility for some local services such as grass-cutting and waste bins.
Critics say the system is needlessly expensive and can be confusing about who does what, but supporters say it bring democracy and decision-making closer to voters.
In Torbay, only Brixham has a town council. A proposal to set up similar bodies for Torquay and Paignton was dropped at the start of this year after public opposition.
Devon is expected to be next in line for the kind of reorganisation which has already replaced the two-layer system with unitaries in Cornwall and Dorset.
A review is being carried out in two-tier Somerset, with proposals to replace the county and five districts with one or two new unitaries.
Devon is expected to come under scrutiny as a result of the Government’s discussion document, the Recovery and Devolution White Paper, due to be published soon.
The letter to the Secretary of State Robert Jenrick from the Liberal Democrat Group of the Local Government Association asks for a delay to any changes because of the pandemic.
The councillors say: “Council officers and members have gone above and beyond on behalf of our residents and local businesses since March and are committed to maintaining and developing that support despite the financial challenges we all face.
“The complex problems we and our communities will face in the coming years are unprecedented. Therefore, it seems extraordinary that national government have decided this would be a good time to instigate a mass programme of local government restructuring. Reorganisation is an extremely resource-intensive and unwelcome distraction at a time when we should be completely focused on responding to the recovery needs of our communities.
“Any reorganisation of councils should be driven by what is best for local communities and places. Our partnership work throughout the Covid pandemic has shown how well councils and local partners are working together within existing structures, therefore we can see no sense at all in spending money on a top-down reorganisation that will take members and officers away from our crucial recovery work.”
A report by the County Councils Network said replacing two-tier counties with a single unitary authority could save almost £3billion over five years. The study, from accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) said putting two unitaries in place would reduce the savings to £1billion.
Crucial to the new arrangements will be the preferred size of new unitary councils, and there has been speculation the Government wants to set a maximum of 600,000.
The population currently covered by Devon County Council and the eight districts is around 800,000, so that could see it split in half, with Torbay merged in.
The Conservative leader of Devon County Council, John Hart, has said he does not want to “lead the charge” towards a unitary authority, but will wait and see what the Government proposes.
A plan to give Exeter unitary status was reversed when the Conservative government came into power in 2010.
Torbay became a unitary authority in 1998 at the same as Plymouth, with Cornwall the following year. Dorset made the change last year, followed by the ongoing review in Somerset, leaving Devon alone in the Westcountry with the county and district system still in place.
Torbay’s MP Kevin Foster says the current two-tier system is on the way out, and wants Torbay to join the discussion about the future shape of local government.
He said in his weekly newsletter: “The two-tier system does not have a long-term future and at some point Devon will need to decide how a Unitary system would look in the traditional Devonshire County.
“This is a debate our bay should be part of, rather than looking to remain solely on the basis of the boundaries drawn up in 1998.”