“Devolution white paper announcement accompanied by hint on unitary push”

So, Blackdown House could be a super-white elephant … worth less than Knowle, even at the Knowle’s knock-down price!

“Local areas could get more powers and cash from central government – but face government pressure to adopt unitary models, following this week’s Conservative Party conference.

Speaking this week at the conference in Manchester, chancellor Sajid Javid announced that the government was rebooting its devolution drive, promising a new white paper on the issue.

He said the move would give “more local areas more local powers to drive investments in the infrastructure and services they know they need”.

The English devolution white paper will set out how further powers and funding would be devolved across England, the Treasury said in a statement.

Director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, Henri Murison, welcomed the announcement, “particularly if it extends to taking more control of existing local spending from Whitehall, as well as retaining taxes raised locally and allowing areas to capture the additional revenues their investments generate.”

He said that passing investment directly to mayors and combined authorities was the best way of funding local transport services. …”

Devolution white paper announcement accompanied by hint on unitary push

New unitary authorities … the criteria restated for counties AND districts

The Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, has set out the circumstances in which he would be prepared to issue a formal invitation to councils under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 to submit proposals for the establishment of new unitary councils.

In what could be one of his last acts as Secretary of State, with the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister and choosing a Cabinet, Brokenshire said in a written ministerial statement yesterday that he would also set out how he intended to assess any unitary proposals councils make in response; and the Government’s continued approach to any proposals two or more district councils may make to merge in order to form a new larger district council.

The Secretary of State said: “Locally-led changes to the structure of local government, whether in the form of unitarisation or district mergers, can – with local support – be an appropriate means of ensuring more sustainable local government and local service delivery, enhanced local accountability, and empowered local communities. This statement …. continues the Government’s commitment to supporting those councils that wish to combine, to serve their communities better and will consider unitarisation and mergers between councils when locally requested.

“However, I recognise that unitarisation may not be appropriate everywhere. I also recognise that it is essential that any local government restructuring should be on the basis of locally led proposals and should not involve top-down Whitehall solutions being imposed on areas. The Government does not support top-down unitary restructuring. This has been the Government’s consistent approach since 2010.”

The Secretary of State said he also wanted to provide further clarity for those councils who might consider the possibility of restructuring, by setting out the factors councils should consider and the processes to be followed – including with regard to local support.

For councils wishing to restructure to form unitary local government, the first step of the statutory process as set out under the 2007 Act is for the minister to issue an invitation to councils to submit proposals.

Brokenshire said there were two circumstances in which he would consider issuing such an invitation.

The first circumstance, he said, is where the following two conditions are met:

There is a local request for an invitation.

That he considers that the request “demonstrates local opinion is coalescing around a single option which is reasonably likely to meet the existing publicly announced criteria for unitarization”.

The Secretary of State said, in forming his view, he would carefully consider the request, including the groups making and supporting it and their reasons for so doing. “Where I issue an invitation, I would do so to all those councils that I consider to have regard to the area concerned, whether or not they were among those who had made the original request.”

The minister said the second circumstance was where he considered that doing so would be appropriate given the specific circumstances of the area, including in relation to the long-term sustainability of local services. This was the situation in which his predecessor, Sajid Javid, issued an invitation to the councils in Northamptonshire, he said.

“Following such an invitation, it would be for the councils concerned to decide whether to develop and submit proposals for unitarisation, either individually or jointly by two or more councils.”

In the statement Brokenshire confirmed that he would assess any locally-led unitary proposal that he received against the criteria for unitarisation announced to Parliament in 2017.

These criteria state that subject to Parliamentary approval a proposal can be implemented, with or without modification, if the Secretary of State has concluded that across the area as a whole the proposal was likely to:

improve the area’s local government;

command “a good deal of local support across the area”; and

cover an area that provides a credible geography for the proposed new structures, including that any new unitary council’s population would be expected to be in excess of 300,000.

On district council mergers, the Secretary of State confirmed that where two or more district councils submit a proposal to merge, he would assess this against the criteria for mergers announced to Parliament in November 2017 and which had been used since then.

“The statutory process for such mergers does not involve my inviting proposals, and I recognise that particularly small district councils may wish to propose merging as a natural next step following a number of years of successful joint working, sharing of services and senior management teams,” he said.

The criteria for district council mergers are that, subject to Parliamentary approval, a proposal to merge would be implemented if the minister had reached a judgement in the round that if so implemented it would be likely to:

improve the area’s local government;

command local support, “in particular that the merger is proposed by all councils which are to be merged and there is evidence of a good deal of local support”; and

the area is a credible geography, consisting of two or more existing local government areas that are adjacent, and which, if established, would not pose an obstacle to locally-led proposals for authorities to combine to serve their communities better and would facilitate joint working between local authorities.

Brokenshire said: “This statement is intended to provide clarity to councils and communities and help ensure that time and effort are not wasted on pursuing proposals which are unlikely to get the go ahead. It is important that those seeking to pursue locally led proposals are confident that there is a broad basis of common local support for the proposals to avoid unnecessary local conflict and distraction from the delivery of quality public services. The statement underlines the need for any proposals to be innovative, improve services, enhance accountability, have local support and deliver financial sustainability if they are to be taken forward.

“Moreover, restructuring is only one of the different ways that councils can move forward. Joint working with other councils and partners could also be an appropriate and sustainable way forward. Such joint working can take a variety of forms ranging from adopting joint plans, setting up joint committees, and sharing back office services, to establishing Combined Authorities, and may extend across county boundaries. Those in an area will know what is best – the very essence of localism to which the Government remains committed.”

https://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/governance/396-governance-news/41073-communities-secretary-sets-out-circumstances-in-which-unitary-proposals-would-be-considered

New Dorset unitary council may not be able to balance the books

“… In today’s report, the programme director for the council Keith Cheesman revealed that, whilst most of the transitional costs have been around what was expected, the cost of taking on interim staff to carry out projects related to changing to the new council have been far higher than anticipated and need extra funding.

Cheesman’s report said that the ongoing dispute between the shadow Dorset Council and Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole Council over the transfer of debts and reserves is yet to be resolved, and also warned that years of reducing employee numbers has left internal employee resources “very limited.”

The merger between Dorset County, East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, Weymouth & Portland, and West Dorset councils was given the green light back in May, followed by a lengthy legal battle with Christchurch Borough Council.

Last week, Christchurch BC, which will be part of the second new council, said it was still split over the need to contribute £420,000 towards merger costs.”

http://www.publicsectorexecutive.com/Public-Sector-News/new-dorset-council-faces-unbalanced-budget-as-dispute-over-transfer-of-debts-remains-unresolved

Never trust a Tory with numbers!

“Mayor James Palmer admitted he underestimated the cost of running the new combined authority, and says original predictions it would cost £850,000 a year were never going to be realistic.

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority was founded in 2017 in a bid to simplify local government. It is involved in many major housing and infrastructure schemes, including the proposed Cambridge metro, and the Wisbech rail link.

However, having initially been hailed as an “efficient” and low-cost authority, some are beginning to worry about rising costs and the “spiralling” cost of paying for staff.

Initially, it had been claimed the authority could be run on £850,000 a year.

Now there are fears costs are “spiralling out of control” after it emerged the authority is set to spend £5.6million on staff salaries alone this year. Total operational costs of the combined authority are set to come to £7.6million.

In leaflets distributed when Conservative James Palmer was running to be mayor of the combined authority, Mr Palmer said: “Under my leadership, the new combined authority will have very few staff, less than 20, and will be very efficient, costing around £850,000 a year to run. Most authorities cost tens of millions. As mayor, I will make sure the cost is kept low.”

Today (November 26) Lucy Nethsingha, chairwoman of the combined authority’s overview and scrutiny committee, noted that costs at the authority were “considerable higher” than had been originally expected. She asked Mr Palmer what he had to say about the increased costs.

Mr Palmer now says he “can only apologise” for the increased costs of running the authority, saying he “underestimated” its running costs.

Mr Palmer said: “I can only apologise. I underestimated the cost of running such an important authority. I think, realistically, we were never going to be able to function on £850,000 a year.”

Mr Palmer said he was concerned about costs at the authority which is why he has commissioned a review of its structure. He also pointed out that the combined authority had taken on staff and spending from the local enterprise partnership (LEP), a group which supported business and sustainable investment and growth, which was scrapped in December 2017.

Mr Palmer also noted that senior staff at the combined authority were not earning more than similarly senior staff in other tiers of local government. He said, however, that after the review is completed, he anticipates the authority will be spending less on staffing. He said he expects running costs to be reduced as the authority relies less on consultants.

“It is a difficult one, “said Mr Palmer. “It’s something the general public rightly gets concerned about. It is their money. But we are working to deliver extraordinary infrastructure and doing things that were previously not achievable.”

https://www.elystandard.co.uk/news/james-palmer-and-cost-of-combined-authority-1-5795358

More on that unitary council “sunset clause”

(See post below also)

Looks like, after March 2019 there will be no chance of a Devon unitary council as ALL councils to be subsumed will have to agree.

To many vested interests (particularly in the area of planning!) even if there were financial savings to be had. Developers trump savings!

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=37206%3Acommunities-secretary-warns-councils-ahead-of-change-to-process-on-reorganisations&catid=59&Itemid=27

Another county goes unitary – despite local district council opposition

Owl says: the “sunset clause” (see below) is a new one to me!

“John Fuller, chair of the District Councils’ Network umbrella group, said: “This unwelcome decision has not secured the local consent amongst the elected local councils that was called for in March.”

He blamed the decision on “ill-conceived legislation” – the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act. This act contains a sunset clause, which expires next March, permitting the secretary of state to fast track structural and boundary changes with the consent of only one local authority.

Brokenshire said that “the great majority” of local public sector partners backed the plans including the police, ambulance service, clinical commissioning group and NHS trusts.

He also said it would improve local government and establish a “credible geography”, thus meeting the criteria needed for structural change.

Brokenshire did acknowledge there were concerns that a single unitary might weaken democratic engagement at the most local level.

“To help reassure any who might be concerned on this, I intend to speak with five councils to determine whether I should modify the proposal before implementing it,” he said.

Martin Tett, leader of Buckinghamshire County Council, hailed the decision as “historic” and called for unity among local leaders.

“The announcement paves the way for a brand new council, fit for the future, created by combining the best of both county and district councils,” he said.

“This new council will be simpler, better value and more local to our residents. It will also have more clout to face head-on the great strategic challenges facing the county over the coming decades.”

Brokenshire said he would also consult on whether to delay local elections due to take place in May 2019, to avoid councillors being elected for only one year.”

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2018/11/buckinghamshire-set-single-unitary-status

“Lack of government lawyers [due to Brexit work] delaying preparations for council merger”

“A lack of government lawyers as a result of Brexit is to blame for delays in producing the necessary orders for a merger of two local authorities in the South West of England, it has been claimed.

The County Gazette has reported that three orders from central government are needed to transfer all the necessary legal powers to the authority that will take over from Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset District Council.

An apppendix to a paper presented at a meeting of Taunton Deane’s scrutiny committee last week said: “Still waiting on MHCLG [the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government] finalising – Brexit impacting on MHCLG’s ability to access lawyers in a timely fashion.

“As long as final version is very similar to draft sould not cause too great an issue. The uncertainty is the concern however.”

The appendix said a general order had been due to be published on 24 July this year.

The merger of Taunton Deane and West Somerset was backed in March by the then Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid.”

Source: Local Government Lawyer

Dis-unitisation: Bankrupt Tory council splits in two

Owl says: do debts go 50/50?

“Stricken Northamptonshire County Council has voted to abolish itself in the first of a series of meetings due this week to settle the authority’s fate.
Councillors backed the proposal to replace the county and its districts with two new unitary councils. These would be North Northamptonshire, covering Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering and Wellingborough, and West Northamptonshire comprising Daventry, Northampton and South Northamptonshire.

Each district has a meeting due this week to vote on the proposal, which will then go to communities secretary James Brokenshire.

A report to the county council noted that Max Caller, the inspector appointed to report to the government on Northamptonshire’s financial plight, had said: “The problems faced by NCC are now so deep and ingrained that it is not possible to promote a recovery plan that could bring the council back to stability and safety in a reasonable timescale” and that a unitary reorganisation should follow.

This week’s report said: “The county, borough and district councils are making this [unitary] proposal – not out of a positive ambition for this radical structural change, but instead out of a pragmatic and responsible approach to the Government’s clearly-signalled direction of travel.” It warned too that unitary reorganisation would not in itself solve the county’s financial problems.

“There is currently a very significant imbalance between revenue income and expenditure at NCC, and this will have an impact on sustainability of the new unitaries if the current financial position is inherited by them in 2020-21,” it said.

“It is essential that NCC delivers a balanced revenue position and sustainable services that can be inherited from day one. “

Northamptonshire in July took the rare step of issuing a second section 114 notice to limit spending.

The government in May imposed commissioners to run parts of the council after Mr Caller’s report highlighted serious flaws in its operation.”

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=36537%3Anorthamptonshire-councillors-vote-for-plan-to-split-county-into-unitaries&catid=59&Itemid=27

Two unitary Devon areas – the case against weakens

DCC leader John Hart has gone on record as saying two unitary councils for two different parts of Devon can never happen, since however you split the county there would always be a poorer authority and a richer one.

Owl has challenged this idea citing “Greater Exeter” as a quasi-unitary authority by stealth already.

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2018/05/18/is-one-devon-unitary-council-being-created-by-stealth/

However, Dorset has just been split in two with two councils with very different profiles: a largely income-rich urban east and a more rural west.

It seems (after the Torbay debacle and continuing austerity cuts) that ALL councils are now poor, so does his argument still hold water – or is it now a leaky bucket?

Would a change result in savings that could go to front-line services? If so, what is the rationale for the status-quo?

Well, of course, it would mean fewer councillors …..!

“High Court dismisses legal challenge to local government reorganisation in Dorset”

Owl says: Christchurch – wealthy, elderly Tories with high-value properties and the notorious ultra-right wing MP “Sir” (earned for nothing) Christopher Chope – the guy who killed the upskirting bill, killed the bill to protect police dogs, tried to stop the minimum wage, stopped a bill to give carers free parking at hospitals, etc. etc. Presumably, they didn’t want to subsidise the “oiks” in neighbouring Bournemouth and Poole!!!

“Under the proposals, backed by former Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, Christchurch is due to become part of a new unitary through a merger with Bournemouth and Poole councils.

Another ‘rural’ unitary would be established from East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, West Dorset and Weymouth & Portland. The county council would cease to exist.

Christchurch had argued that the Secretary of State acted beyond his powers in passing the legislation to allow the reorganisation to go ahead.
The judicial review challenge was heard in the High Court on 30 July.
Cllr David Flagg, Leader of the Council, Christchurch Borough Council, said: “We are disappointed by today’s judgement. We have been advised that a number of points set out in the judgment are still arguable in law and therefore we will be responding to the judge on these. Depending on his response we will consider whether an appeal to the Court of Appeal would be appropriate or not.”

A statement issued on behalf of Bournemouth Borough Council, Dorset County Council, Borough of Poole, East Dorset District Council, North Dorset District Council, Purbeck District Council, West Dorset District Council and Weymouth & Portland Borough Council said they were “delighted but unsurprised” by the judgment.

It added: “A huge amount of work has already been undertaken, and we are making excellent progress towards creating the two new councils. Christchurch Borough councillors and their officers have always been welcome at the various meetings that have taken place, working to form the two new councils.

“We respect the choice of Christchurch Borough Council to challenge the Secretary of State’s decision, through a judicial review on a procedural point of law. In doing so, we note that the validity of the case for creating two new councils was not the basis for this judicial review challenge.

“Christchurch Borough Council has spent a very significant amount of council tax payers’ money in pursuing this legal action. The High Court has rejected that challenge and we hope that all Christchurch Borough Councillors will now accept that judgment, and fully take part in planning for and making decisions about the new council.”

The statement continued: “We are optimistic this matter is now behind us, and we can look forward to working together to create the best new local councils we can, to protect public services as much as possible, and to secure future growth and prosperity for our areas.”

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=36287%3Ahigh-court-dismisses-legal-challenge-to-local-government-reorganisation-in-dorset&catid=59&Itemid=27

Torbay unitary runs out of money – wants to be returned as a district to DCC

So the elected mayor experiment failed and Torquay is attempting to rejoin DCC with its tail between its legs.

The mayor caused major controversies, here are a few highlights:

The Tory council majority split and split again:
https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/three-torbay-tory-rebels-sent-886395
and
https://www.devonlive.com/news/three-more-torbay-tories-walk-712029

The mayor bought up a shopping centre in Bournemouth, an office building in Exeter, a business park in Torquay:
https://www.devonlive.com/news/local-news/row-torbay-council-buys-tesco-292274

He lost a no confidence vote but refused to resign:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-40682962

A referendum decided that the mayoral system was not wanted so the council was going to revert to a cabinet system:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2016-36241115

and now he says the council has run out of money:

“Torbay went it alone in 1998 but it has now taken the first steps back to Devon County Council being responsible for running the threatened services.

Mr Oliver said: “We cannot survive as we are beyond this next financial year. There is no money. …

“We have got two years. Whoever wins the election in May 2019, this has to be an all-party solution. “The lack of money will drive economies of scale. Local authorities will have to work in partnership. “Some of them are just too small as they are. “There are 10 chief executives in Devon and 10 financial officers. …

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/torquays-seafront-not-protected-high-668592

National parks and Devon unitaries – an intriguing solution

Councillor John Hart, Leader of Devon County Council appeared recently on BBC Spotlight, and explained that Devon was unlikely to become a Unitary Authority, because its population, at nearly 800,000, was greater than the Government’s preferred size for a Unitary, which is between 300,000 and 500,000. He may be right: Devon might be too big.

Meanwhile Michael Gove, Minister for the Environment, announces that he is to conduct a national review of National Parks, and says he is keen to create new ones.

Is there an opportunity here to kill two birds with one stone?

The Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks already exist, and there are proposals for a Dorset and East Devon National Park, and a South Hams National Park. Were these National Parks to be created, and significant powers handed over to them, the rest of Devon’s population would be significantly reduced.

There is also the Tamar Valley AONB and the Blackdown Hills AONB, which could be incorporated into an expanded Dartmoor National Park and Dorset and East Devon National Park respectively.

A redrawing of boundaries to, for example, link the South Hams AONB/National Park with Dartmoor opens the prospect of three large parcels of Devon being created to create new National Parks, which would be at least semi-autonomous administratively from the rest of Devon.

The rump of Devon, still centred upon Exeter, and including, essentially, Teignbridge, Torridge, North Devon, Mid Devon, and much of East Devon, would have a population of around 500,000, and thus meet the Government’s guidelines.

All the existing District Councils would disappear, thus at a stroke removing an entire tier of local government and saving tens of millions of pounds. And the new and expanded National Parks will bring in greatly increased tourism revenue, and provide much-needed protection to our glorious countryside.

Is one Devon unitary council being created by stealth?

DCC Leader John Hart said on Spotlight this evening, that the reason Devon isn’t going for unitisation is that the government usually insists on 0.5m population for a unitary council and so Devon would need 2 unitary councils and, whichever way you cut it, that would result in one rich council and one poor council. (Presumably he means a north/south divide or east/west).

(No worries, Mr Hart, ALL councilswill be very poor, very soon!)

BUT WAIT! Isn’t “Greater Exeter” coming in close to 500,000 population?

Exeter – approx 120,000
Mid Devon – approx 80,000
Teignbridge – approx 125,000
East Devon – approx 140,000

YES – it is big enough to be unitary and is developing an over-arching “Strategic Plan”.

Are we getting a “Greater Exeter” unitary council by stealth?

[Somerset] “Tory council at risk of bankruptcy calls for funding system fix”

Owl says: “Hissing” in the wind! Our unelected and unaccountable Local Enterprise Partnership now controls the vast amount of money in both counties!

“A Tory-controlled local authority has called on ministers to fix a “broken” system of council funding after it emerged its deteriorating finances mean it is at serious risk of going bust.

Somerset county council has been told that large overspends on children’s social services, coupled with reduced government funding and the erosion of its reserves, have left its finances “in a very challenging position”.

A formal peer review says any failure to meet its ambitious financial savings targets for the current year would leave the council at risk of being unable to set a balanced budget within months – in effect leaving it at risk of insolvency.

The county, which has already announced unpopular plans to close two-thirds of its Sure Start children’s centres, more than half of its libraries and make big reductions to its learning disability services, must now find further cuts.

There has been heightened concern over the sustainability of local authority finances since Northamptonshire county council declared effective bankruptcy in February. It was subsequently taken over by government commissioners.

A spokesperson for Somerset county council said: “There are clearly pressures on our budgets, as there is on local authority budgets up and down the country as government funding falls and demand grows.

“The recent peer review report found many positives and areas of success. It also concluded that we understand the financial challenges we face and that we can meet them.

“We believe the system by which local government is funded is broken and call on the government to address this as a priority as part of its fair funding review [of local government finance].”

Somerset says it is confident that it will not follow Northamptonshire into insolvency. Despite serious challenges – including a target of £17m in cuts for children’s social care this year – it says it is committed to meeting savings targets.

But the review makes it clear that the county has struggled to deliver planned savings for two years, and has been reliant on reserves to patch up its budgets. “For the last two years only 65% of agreed savings have been delivered and whilst there may be specific reasons for this, this level of delivery is simply unsustainable in the future.”

Somerset, which has an annual budget of around £316m, has made around £130m of savings since 2010. It believes the forthcoming green paper into social care funding and the fair funding review hold the key to its survival.

The National Audit Office warned this year that several councils were using up “rainy day” reserves to prop up services. It estimated up to 15 councils are at risk of going bust when their reserves are exhausted.

Jane Lock, the leader of Somerset’s opposition Liberal Democrat group, blamed the council’s predicament on its decision to freeze council tax for six years after 2010, despite swingeing national cuts in funding, and at a time when austerity measures were increasing demand on services.

She said: “The reason Somerset has got to here is quite simply the political ideology that they would refuse to put up council tax. That’s left a £26m hole in the budget.”

Simon Edwards, the director of the County Councils Network, said: “County authorities face a toxic cocktail of having rising demand for services, being the lowest funded upper-tier councils, and the impact of having the sharpest reductions in government funding by the end of the decade.”

He added: “With demand continuing to rise amid funding reductions, the reality is that councils of all sizes and colours will face similar situations in the future, unless a sustainable solution is found by government.”

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/18/tory-council-at-risk-of-bankruptcy-slams-broken-funding-system

Unitisation … today Somerset, tomorrow? Will the (very fat) turkeys vote for Christmas?

“Scrapping Somerset councils ‘may save £28m a year’ ”

“Abolishing all six local authorities in Somerset could save £18m to £28m each year, the county council leader says.

Conservative David Fothergill has asked for work to begin to look at how a unitary arrangement could work.

The plan would see several single-tier authorities – or one – replacing local councils including the county council.

The idea has been met with mixed responses with one councillor saying it would mean getting “turkeys to vote for Christmas”.

Mr Fothergill said: “At a time of unprecedented financial pressures on all councils we are all looking at different ways to be more efficient, make savings and protect the front-line services that our residents value so much.

“I believe that we owe it to our residents to look at this option too.

“I want start the ball rolling on work to establish the benefits and costs of such a change so that we can all make an informed decision as to whether a unitary model is the right way to go.”

News ‘a bombshell’

He said savings from introducing a single-authority would include £500,000 per year by moving from five chief executives to one, and about £1m per year by reducing the number of councillors covering the county by about half from the current 300.

Analysis: Ruth Bradley – BBC Somerset

While it’s relatively unusual for councillors to decide to get rid of their own authorities, it’s not unheard of.

In fact Somerset has been looking to the example of its near-neighbours to see just how it could work here – and how much money it could save.
Wiltshire became a unitary authority in 2007 – the same time as Cornwall – merging four districts and a county council into what is now the biggest local authority in the West of England.

But that was in a different political era, pre-austerity rather than as a reaction to government cuts.

And next year Dorset is due to scrap its nine councils and set up two new unitaries.

Interestingly it has managed to achieve this with near-consensus from all the councils involved – something which Somerset will be keen to emulate, given the fractured nature of the last attempt at this here in 2007.
Buckinghamshire was also signed off by the government earlier this year to go unitary at the same time as Dorset.

Somerset is hoping to have its model in place by the 2021 local elections.

Other savings would come through reducing the number of HR, customer services and finance teams, and reducing the number of IT and utilities contracts and transport costs.

The Conservative leaders of West Somerset and Taunton Deane said they were prepared to discuss the idea, while the Liberal Democrat leader of South Somerset described the news as “a bombshell” and said “none of us [district council leaders] want to go down this route but we have to put the people or Somerset first”.

Independent county councillor, Mike Rigby, said he was pleased with the plan and “had been calling for this for years”.

“It’s going to require some turkeys to vote for Christmas so it’s not in the bag yet, though I suspect the momentum will become irresistible,” he added.
There were protests outside parliament in London in 2007 when the Liberal Democrats made a similar proposal.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-43972967

Another county moving to unitisation despite district council protests

Owl wonders what is going on under the radar in Devon and whether district councils are more worried about loss of power and influence rather than economic considerations … recalling that EDDC Tory Leader Paul Diviani rejected the idea of a Jurassic national park with Dorset because EDDC would lose control over planning.

“District councils in Buckinghamshire have responded angrily to government plans to abolish them.

Communities secretary Sajid Javid said yesterday that he was minded to agree a proposal from the county council to create a county-wide unitary council.

In a joint statement, Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Buckinghamshire and Wycombe councils said: “While we are extremely disappointed, the ‘minded to’ decision is not set in stone, and we will be making the strongest possible representations to the secretary of state that this decision is not the right one.

“We don’t believe that this decision is in the best interest of our local residents, businesses, community groups, parish councils and various other stakeholders across the county and, based on our own engagement, we don’t believe it has strong local support.”

The districts had made a rival proposal under which Aylesbury Vale would become one unitary and the other three councils would form another.

They said this recognised differences in the economy, jobs, growth and housing markets across the county.

“A single large unitary will mean major opportunities will be missed in these areas and that a one size fits all model will not mean the best deal,” they said.

“We also question the savings the single unitary model claims to deliver.”

http://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2018/03/buckinghamshire-councils-angry-governments-unitary-plans

What if parishes controlled most local services?

Owl has been thinking – always dangerous and always upsetting some people! This time it is about unitary councils and how they might work for the “little people” (or even little owls).

It seems that almost everyone now agrees they will save money, by removing a tier of government. But, when and if they do, how do we safeguard ourselves from being hijacked by the likes of Local Development Partnerships, big business and greedy speculators (some of whom, unfortunately, are likely to be unitary councillors and some who could be all three!).

It seems the absolute key is the devolving of as much decision-making power as is practical to parish level.

Local power brokers (we know who they are!) will inevitably resist this as much as possible. Cornwall’s unitary system is generally accepted to have been something of a success, but the big criticism is the centralisation of decision-making, and lack of democracy.

If we devolve power to parish level, surely this should in lude planning – as the more local it is, the more likely it is to work. It is, of course, a myth that this will lead to nimbyism. Most communities are happy to accept new building – they just don’t want nasty little boxes in the wrong place at inflated prices.

It is obvious that we need to reduce the tiers of government. Look what we have locally: parish council, EDDC, Greater Exeter, the GESP area (which is not the same as it includes Mid Devon), County Council, the LEP (together with its new proto-authority/the Joint Committee), England, the UK, the EU. That makes nine levels of bureaucrats all reinventing the same wheels (and charging for it!).

We are leaving the EU (probably), and it seems to Owl we could quite happily exit EDDC, Greater Exeter, GESP, and the LEP without any loss – which would leave us with four. Parish, County, England, UK. Plenty enough. And imagine the savings!

We could devolve as much as possible to parish level, provided those parishes were of a certain minimum size, say 10,000 population. Parishes could cooperate with neighbouring parishes in the provision of some services such as environmental health. Most such as street cleaning, highway maintenance of everything except A roads, and non-strategic planning could be left to the parish.

But it would mean powerful (and often rapaciously greedy) people being forced to lose that power for the greater good.

Aaahh, well it was good to dream!

Another new unitary council approved – to save money

Owl says: how long can Devon hold out? And should it?

“The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has said he is “minded to” back the proposal for a single new unitary council in Buckinghamshire.

In a written ministerial statement Sajid Javid said he had chosen the structure proposed by Buckinghamshire County Council ahead of a proposal for two unitaries put forward by the district councils of Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, High Wycombe, and South Bucks.

The latter plan would have seen one council for the area of Aylesbury Vale and the other for the remainder of the current county area.

Javid’s decision is subject to Parliamentary approval and further discussions.

The Secretary of State said: “I am satisfied that this new single council, if established, is likely to improve local government and service delivery in the county, generating savings, increasing financial resilience, facilitating a more strategic and holistic approach to planning and housing challenges, and sustaining good local services. I am also satisfied that across Buckinghamshire as a whole there is a good deal of local support for this new council, and that the area of the council represents a credible geography.

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=34517%3Ajavid-backs-plans-for-single-new-unitary-for-buckinghamshire&catid=59&Itemid=27

How does a council become effectively bankrupt?

“… Earlier this month, Northamptonshire went effectively bankrupt, becoming the first local authority in two decades to issue a section 114 notice. This signalled that its finances were so precarious it would be unlikely to balance the books this year and was at risk of being unable to set a legal budget for 2018-19.

As a result, One Angel Square [its new HQ] is likely to be put up for sale, three months after it was formally opened by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid. A fire sale of assets is the only way to keep the council afloat, say officials, though even this temporary fix may not be enough to save it.

… The council’s predicament has triggered bitter recrimination among local Tories. Northamptonshire’s seven MPs, all Conservatives, accused the council of mismanagement. Heather Smith, the council leader, said the government had starved it of funds. Eighteen backbench Conservative councillors called on Smith to resign.

The irony is not lost on some observers that the first local authority to go bust under austerity is not the profligate Labour municipality of media caricature, but a Tory-run council in the heart of middle England.

Penny Smith, the council’s Unison branch secretary, said: “Can you just imagine if this was a Labour authority? They’d be saying ‘Typical Labour, can’t run anything’.”

Furthermore, it has crashed after rigid adherence to the Tory ideological rulebook for local government. Northamptonshire embarked on a “next generation” reform plan in 2014. Services would be outsourced or turned into profit-making companies. The council would drastically shrink in size and be run like a business. “The old model of local government no longer works,” it declared.

The grand plan failed at a cost, say critics, of more than £50m on consultants and rebranding. Expected efficiency savings did not materialise, some privatised services have since been hauled back in-house, and the scheme’s political architects, including the then council leader Jim Harker and the then chief executive Paul Blantern, have departed. After years of freezing council tax bills on principle, the authority has raised them by 6% from April.

… Northamptonshire’s future remains precarious. A government inspection into alleged financial and governance failures will report back in March. Staff morale is at rock bottom, said Smith. There is speculation that the county could be abolished and merged along with its five constituent district councils into two new unitary authorities.

There are fears that a handful of councils could follow Northamptonshire into bankruptcy. Conservative-run Surrey county council has a deficit of more than £100m. A survey by the Local Government Information Unit thinktank found eight out of 10 councils were concerned about their finances.

McLaughlin has warned Northamptonshire’s councillors that they should not assume the government will ride to the rescue. Ministers have promised a review of council funding, but this “is more likely to be concerned with the distribution of an ever-shrinking quantum of support than a major injection of spending power”.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/feb/11/northamptonshire-county-council-effective-bankruptcy-tories-cuts

Unitary authorities – the austerity measure that can’t be stopped?

Wonder what that new £10m EDDC HQ will be used for?

“Simon Heffer writes in the Sunday Telegraph to call on the Government to simplify and streamline the UK’s councils, replacing the system of county and district councils with county-level unitary authorities.

The need for “wholesale reform”, he says, has been made urgent by the problem of “social care that will break local government” and former chancellor George Osborne’s “disastrously flawed business rate system, which has had a profound effect on revenue-raising”.

He says that a system of unitary authorities would reduce payroll, offer the chance to sell off assets, and improve the handling of planning decisions, while the Government should remove “huge strategic questions such as social care from council control altogether”.

The Sunday Telegraph, Page: 21