“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.”