Devon councils urged to merge in drive for efficiency

Devon should merge its councils into a small number of unitary authorities, the county council’s opposition leader suggests. Currently, Devon’s local government consists of three top-tier authorities – Devon County, Torbay and Plymouth – and eight lower-tier (district, borough or city) councils, including Exeter.

Ollie Heptinstall www.devonlive.com

Plymouth and Torbay became unitaries in 1998, meaning those councils are responsible for all local services, including education, children’s services and adult social care, as well as those delivered at district level elsewhere in Devon, such as refuse collection. The setup is different to Devon’s neighbouring counties. Cornwall has been a single unitary authority since 2009, while Somerset becomes one next year, when its five councils merge.

Cllr Julian Brazil, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrat group at Devon County Council, claims that adopting a similar approach in Devon is likely to save money and reduce bureaucracy. “Unitary to me, in this day and age, the efficiencies you get out of it outweigh any of the disbenefits,” he said.

As an example, Mr Brazil, who represents Kingsbridge, explains how district councils currently operate their own car parks but the county is responsible for on-street parking, meaning they employ separate traffic wardens. However, Cllr Brazil admitted the county’s size may prevent it from becoming one single council: “Maybe it will be the whole of Devon, I don’t know, but I think it’s more likely that we’d probably be split into three, as other counties have been.”

The Devon unitary debate has been ongoing for years. Between 2007 and 2010, significant energy was put into attempts to reorganise the county’s two-tier structure. The two options on the table then included a ‘super council’ unitary authority for Devon, apart from Torbay and Plymouth, and promoting Exeter to unitary status like Torbay and Plymouth.

The Exeter option was given the green light by the-then Labour government only to be scrapped when the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition came to power in 2010. But the issue is still bubbling away, and Cllr Brazil doesn’t think “we should rule anything out.”

He added: “With Zoom and Teams meetings, [the county] is suddenly a lot smaller … in the sense that I can now have a face-to-face meeting with somebody who lives in Barnstaple and I’m down in Kingsbridge and they’re there in the room. It’s not ideal and it’s not perfect, but it makes it easier.” However, the county council’s long-serving leader, John Hart (Conservative, Bickleigh and Wembury), opposes reorganisation and questions whether savings would be made.

“I could see advantages for a dictatorship,” he said. “But [not] once you’ve got politics involved.”

“Some things that we do as a county are right for Devon. A lot of things that the districts do are right for smaller areas. If you’re going to create a county and then split it up into the areas, you’re not really going to save very much anyway.

“I don’t see massive savings. There could be some savings, I’ll be honest, but the government would not let us be big enough to produce the savings in my view.”

“I’ve always been against on the grounds that if you go for unitary, it would have to be a united front or we would have blood on the table. [If you] go for unitary with the districts opposing you, you finish up with district members all running the council. The first thing they will do is fall out amongst themselves, because north and south won’t agree on what is required, so I would hesitate completely.”

Cllr Hart believes any attempt to split Devon into two will result in one poor and one rich area. He also suggests that were Devon “ordered to go down the unitary route, I’m sure Plymouth and Torbay would be thrown in the mix whether they like it or not, which would mean three [authorities].”

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