“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