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Divide and conquer: why councils should fear a stand-off approach to reorganisation

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Yesterday’s LGC briefing focused on one of the most divisive personalities to have graced the sector in recent times: Eric Pickles.

Today’s briefing is focused on one of the most divisive issues facing the sector right now: reorganisation.

When LGC conducted a major research project on this issue last month we found more than half of England’s two-tier areas were actively considering and discussing forming new unitary councils. There have been plenty of developments since then, most notably in Somerset.

County council leader David Fothergill (Con) prompted fury when he decided to “start the ball rolling” on unitary discussions via the media. District leaders were upset and angry at the way he went about doing that, let alone with what he was proposing. 

One of the claims Cllr Fothergill made when he first floated the idea was that it could save the county up to £28m. That figure has been strongly disputed by the districts as leaders called it “unrealistic” and “not based on a sound analysis”.

Yesterday, in Parliament, one the county’s MPs echoed those concerns when he said the figure related to disputed internal analysis from 2006 when restructuring in the county was first mooted.

Ian Liddell-Grainger, Conservative MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, yesterday said: “The present leader of the county council is still running with the idea 12 years later, and I am afraid that it is as wrong now as it was then.

“This is what rings alarm bells in my mind: Somerset County Council has never been good with money. I have looked at its books just to prove how bad it is.”

Last week LGC reported how a corporate peer review by the Local Government Association had found Somerset only has “sufficient resources to balance its budget for one more year” beyond 2018-19 if it continues to overspend at its current levels. The peer review urged the county to get a “grip” on its overspending in children’s services.

Mr Liddell-Grainger said the council has between £11m and £18m in its general reserve fund, a similar amount to what it had in 2007, and added: “That may sound like a lot in certain quarters, but it is chickenfeed when the overall budget runs into hundreds of millions. If an unexpected crisis happens — normally it does — there is nothing to fall back on and, unfortunately, we have had that in Somerset. Occasionally, the place floods.”

In times when councils are struggling with finances one might argue it is incumbent on all in public office to find the most efficient way to deliver services.

It is with this in mind that district council leaders in Somerset, having suppressed their anger, vowed to work with the county council on developing proposals for the way local services could be run in the future.

Unsurprisingly, district and county councillors often have different views about what might work best as a future model. Whether the government would want unanimous backing for any restructuring proposals was something MPs pressed local government minister Rishi Sunak on yesterday.

While Mr Sunak reiterated guidance that proposals for any new unitaries should cover a population of “300,000 people or more” he added: “However, each proposal will be considered on its merits.”

When asked if there should be a local referendum on any reorganisation proposals, Mr Sunak said: “I am afraid that I cannot say those specific words.”

What he could say was that it was incumbent on councils to demonstrate there is a “good deal of local support” for whatever is finally proposed to government.

“I will elaborate a little further on what a good deal of local support means, as opposed to the mechanism for establishing that it is there,” said Mr Sunak. “We would like to see a good deal of local support, which we assess in the round across the whole area — from business, the voluntary sector, public bodies and local communities. We do not mean unanimous agreement from all councillors, stakeholders, councils and residents. However, we expect as much consensus from councils as possible.”

Consensus is something that is clearly lacking in one part of Dorset as Christchurch BC has launched a legal challenge to the proposals to reorganise Dorset’s nine local authorities into two new unitaries. This is despite the fact the challenge has been called “absurd” by a government lawyer.

And the row rumbles on in Buckinghamshire. District leaders writing for LGC today said they “make absolutely no apology” for continuing to make the case for two new unitary councils across the county despite the fact former housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid announced in March he was “minded to” implement a single county-wide unitary. The district leaders also hit back at accusations they had been “dishonest” in the way they had presented their arguments to residents.

Local relations across the country are becoming increasingly strained, and at a time when it is arguably more important than ever that the sector sticks together.

While localism fans will welcome Mr Sunak’s remarks that “it will not be for the government to impose a top-down solution” on any area regarding reorganisation, cynics might argue this is the perfect way to leave the sector distracted at a critical time. By leaving local councils to argue amongst themselves about future structures it means there is less energy going into collectively lobbying the government over the fair funding review, the need for more money for social care and, ultimately, a fairer funding settlement ahead of the next spending review.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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