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District councils should be axed, says ex-minister

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A former local government minister has called for the eradication of district councils as part of the push to make huge public sector efficiency savings.

Parmjit Dhanda, who until last year served as a junior minister at the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG), claimed a change to unitary authorities in the 24 remaining two-tier areas would save £500m a year, or £1.5bn over a spending review period.

Speaking in the parliamentary Budget debate last week, Mr Dhanda cited research from the House of Commons library which showed that around £20m per year could be found per county area.

“I have always championed unitary local government,” he said. “The Budget afforded a great opportunity for the chancellor or departments to say they would press ahead with that.”

He added the savings could be made within “two or three years”, and called for the government to implement such a policy in this year’s Queen’s Speech.

When he was a minister Mr Dhanda was criticised for highlighting the efficiency savings that could be made in Gloucestershire, where his constituency is, had it moved to a unitary structure.

Chancellor Alistair Darling last month revealed that the public sector would have to make £9bn of efficiency savings between 2011-12 and 2012-13.

Alan Goodrum, chairman of the District Council Chief Executives’ Network, dismissed Mr Dhanda’s comments, instead throwing his weight behind shadow local government minister Bob Neill’s proposals that districts should retain councillors but share officers and services with the county.

“We are working on the basis that two-tier local government is here to stay,” Mr Goodrum said.

“I think all district councils are looking at their relationships and shared services with their counties as a means of making efficiency savings.”

Mr Dhanda also called for responsibility for fire and rescue services to move from DCLG to the Department of Health in order to make savings and improve services from better joint working with ambulance services.

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