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