Not united over unitary authorities

It is alleged that a new democratic deficit could be arising in many of our local communities with already-delayed council elections (2020) possibly being put back until 2023 due to reorganisation (see letter below). There is also a feeling amongst smaller political parties and independent councillors that yet another ‘power grab’ is going on by the Conservative Party.

The government was expected to publish a white paper on ‘Devolution and Local Recovery’ in early October (although we are now informed that it will be delayed until  2021). The white paper will put forward proposals for local government structural reform in England.  

Most counties in the East Midlands currently have two tiers of local government: county councils, and district or borough councils, with services being split between them. The government is proposing to abolish many district and borough councils with county-wide unitary authorities taking over all services. This could mean a lot of reorganisation at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic might still be with us.

Yet East Midlands Conservatives have been coordinating to exert pressure for unitary councils in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, in particular. Indeed, some Tory leaderships in these areas have been writing to the government to try and speed up the process. Their case for unitary councils is mainly financial and it is correct that all councils are struggling due to lack of funding.

However, two Liberal Democrat councillors (Michael Mullaney and former MP Paul Holmes) are opposed to this step and have decided to respond by writing a letter themselves to Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. They have collected many signatures from other East Midlands councillors who back them. 

Dear Secretary of State,

Even before the publication of the misnamed ‘Devolution’ white paper, Conservative run county councils such as Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire have been setting out their proposals to variously:

      1. Abolish the county elections of May 2021

      2. Abolish all district and borough councils

      3. Elect new, massive and remote county wide unitary authorities of up 

          to a million people in May 2023.

We believe that these proposals are fundamentally wrong in every respect.

They would mean that all the councils involved would spend the next two and a half years arguing over and concentrating on, the expensive business of large-scale closure, merger, defining and reapplying for jobs, redundancy and closing down sites. This is the last thing we need when tackling Covid-19, and its economic fallout should be the number one priority.

The UK already has the lowest ratio of councils and councillors per head of population of any Western European country. Abolishing all district and borough councils would make this democratic deficit even worse. Far from representing ‘devolution’ these plans represent a huge centralising of roles and local responsibilities.

District and borough councils are rooted in and represent the interests of their local communities in a way which large (in population and geographic area) unitary authorities cannot remotely do. Most recently this has been clearly shown during the Covid-19 outbreak when the flexible, local knowledge and expertise of district and borough councils has provided the cutting edge of distributing local business support grants, delivering food parcels to the local shielded population, advising their local retail businesses on social distancing strategies and much else.

Unitary authorities in compact, geographically small areas with a clear community identity make good sense, as seen in our cities and in a very small county such as Rutland. Huge unitary authorities of up to a million people spread across a wide geographic area do not. Smaller unitary authorities that reflect actual communities work well across Europe and the USA but the UK government has so far ruled this out. 

The financial problems of local government have been caused because the government has cut 40 per cent of their funding. The massive problems of adult social care are a result of successive governments failing to deal with the problem. The increasing expense and complexity of parts of local government are due to the government’s imposition of new and costly tiers, with police and crime commissioners and directly elected mayors.

We call upon the government to reverse the cuts to the funding of local government, withdraw their so called ‘devolution plans’ and consult on an effective form of community based local government. Devolution should mean moving power downwards not moving it up to large and remote bodies.

 Yours faithfully,

Cllr Michael Mullaney. Hinckley & Bosworth District Council & Leicestershire County Council

Cllr Paul Holmes. Chesterfield Borough Council

We have invited other councillors to comment. Carl Benfield (Green Party councillor, North West Leicestershire District Council) says, “As a district councillor, I see the enormous attention provided by council staff to the needs of our area. The response to Covid-19 has shown how effectively local councils deliver support services and working test and trace mechanisms, unlike central government.”

Politically, he believes that a multi-layer democracy is vital to ensure checks and balances are applied to central government, particularly in a first-past-the-post voting system. Also, localism is a core principle of the EU so it’s no surprise to him that the government wishes to reverse this practice and centralise. But a radical shift in organisation and operation would inevitably create huge gaps in service provision and put many at risk.

Jim Hakewill (Independent councillor, Northamptonshire County Council and Kettering Borough Council) says that “the failure of central government to properly fund county council social care authorities by driving through the last ten years’ austerity agenda is being made far worse by the enforced creation of unitary councils. The relentlessly increasing demand for adult and children’s care has not been matched either by increased central government funding or the ability of councils to raise council tax beyond the government’s capping level.

“Social care accounts for around 75 per cent of county council expenditure and both adult and children’s services are, I feel, broken. Reorganisation is not the answer to a lack of proper joined up thinking; innovative solutions and appropriate funding are needed.”

Paul Beadle (Labour Party councillor, Harborough District Council) says he likes the idea of unitary authorities but ‘the devil will be in the detail’ of the proposals. There are potential efficiency savings to be made by the unitary model, although how big a saving isn’t certain as councils can (and in many cases do) already make savings through the use of shared services. He thinks another benefit would be that it would give residents clarity of accountability and it would make sense to have all services provided for by one authority. Nevertheless, he is concerned that this could all be to the detriment of local democracy, so it is essential that there is a proper consultation process. 

We also heard from a county and district councillor. He says that he has signed the above letter to Robert Jenrick and believes that whatever anyone’s views this is not the right time to embark on reorganisation of local government. The councils must focus on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequences for the economy. He is against a huge Leicestershire unitary as it would be too large, remote and centrally controlled from County Hall but thinks that in the longer term creating unitary authorities across England will probably be forced by the government in which case he would prefer two unitarities based on a north / south split of the county.

Meanwhile a Conservative county councillor maintains that both Conservative and Labour county councillors favour unitary authorities not just for financial reasons but for simplification. He acknowledges that local input is still needed either via parish councils having greater responsibilities or new ‘local forums’.

We should like to hear from anyone in the East Midlands who has views on these issues – not just councillors. Please leave your comments on Twitter or Facebook or send to Editor@eastmidlandsbylines.co.uk