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.”

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.

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”.

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