THERE was a mixed reaction at Stratford-on-Avon District Council this week to the idea that Warwickshire might have its existing six local authorities abolished and replaced by one body covering the whole county.
Cllr Chris Saint (Cons, Tredington), the leader of the district council, said he was “open to persuasion” but Cllr Richard Cheney (Lib Dem, Shipston), the main opposition leader, welcomed the idea with open arms.
They were responding to an announcement that Warwickshire County Council is holding a debate at its meeting next Tuesday on whether it is in the public interest to explore the opportunities provided by unitary local government.
Cllr Cheney told the Herald: “Last year the Lib Dems in Warwickshire called for a debate on the possibility of our area moving to a unitary system. We’re delighted that the Conservatives have responded to that call.”
He said that a unitary system could save between £12 million and £17 million across the county and allow both a cut in council tax and more money to protect services. “We also think it would provide better value for money for taxpayers,” he said.
Cllr Cheney added: “The Lib Dems have been very strongly in support of the sharing of services by councils and other public bodies as a way of saving money. Local Conservatives have been very reluctant to sign up to this in the past, but going unitary is another way of approaching this and we hope they’ll be more responsive this time.
“We’ve also been continually frustrated by the inability of the various councils to work together.”
But Cllr Saint said: “My discussions have established that there are wide ranging views on how public services should be organised – many recognising the economies of joint working, but others liking the local independence of the system that has served us for the last 40 years.”
Cllr Saint pointed out the unitary system already existed in some parts of the country, and along with the two-tier structure such as that in Warwickshire, there was plenty of evidence for informed decision making.
He added: “My mind is open to persuasion, but the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is quite clear that change can only happen if there is the will to make it happen.”
A county council spokesman told the Herald this week that although there would be a vote at the end of Tuesday’s debate no change could possibly be made – whatever the result – until at least 2018.
The establishment of a unitary system would mean the abolition of the county council itself, along with the existing five district and borough councils, including Stratford District Council. According to the county council, it could also result in a reduction of £30 a year in council tax for people living in a typical Band D property.
In a statement this week Cllr Izzi Seccombe (Cons, Stour and the Vale), the leader of the county council, said: “Over the next four years the county council has to save £92 million. When we consulted with the public on the proposals for our budget savings, a number of respondents indicated that we should be considering unitary local government to protect services.
“There are 545,000 residents, more than £1 billion in funding and we have 272 councillor roles across six councils (three district and two borough councils and one county council) representing us.”
Cllr Seccombe added: “We have a significant role to play in delivering essential local services for the people of Warwickshire and should do so in the most effective and efficient way.
“The intention is to start an open and inclusive debate which will have at its core the interests of our citizens, and what makes sense to them, and the long term viability of local government in Warwickshire.
“Local government has significant savings to make and we expect that the public sector will be the subject of further austerity measures beyond 2018.
“We therefore believe that unitary local government merits further exploration in the interests of Warwickshire residents. We feel that this is the start of a crucial conversation which would benefit from the widest possible engagement and should be embraced as early on as possible.”
The report to councillors suggests the outcome of unitary government would include:
Residents having a single contact point making it easier for them to access all the services they need
Local democracy being easier to understand
The number of councillors in Warwickshire reducing from more than 250 currently to less than 100, meaning quicker decisions and less cost
Other public bodies (such as the police, health and probation service) only dealing with one council, making delivery of joined-up public services more efficient
Service delivery across the county being integrated and better connected without the need for costly and sometimes lengthy negotiations between the different councils in Warwickshire.
Less spent on administration and more money being targeted more effectively on the services that people need.
An estimated saving for Warwickshire of between £12m per year (two councils) and £17m per year (a single council) that over four years would generate savings of £48m to £68m which could be used to protect services.
The overall figure of £170,000 in expenses also needs unpacking. Most people think of business expenses as person...
Although the government u-turned on their decision to ignore VC winners born abroad in September, there were concerns th...
They say there is an “appalling lack of information” handed out to users by energy suppliers, and three quar...