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R is for reorganisation: a round up of the rows, rumours and wrangling

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Whereas devolution was once on the tip of everyone’s tongue, it appears discussions in two-tier areas have now turned firmly to reorganisation. 

There is rarely a day that goes by right now that LGC does not hear rumours, rumblings, and wrangling about the future structure of the sector. 

Here we have rounded up some of the most significant recent stories about reorganisation to bring you bang up-to-date.

R-eferendum: Lincolnshire CC’s leader Martin Hill (Con) has announced he intends to ask members to vote on whether to hold a referendum on the abolition of all eight councils in the county and establish a unitary system. The proposal has not gone down too well with Lincoln City Council’s leader.

E-scalating arguments: An call for unity among the two-tiers in Hampshire by county council leader Roy Perry (Con) this week has only served to incite anger among his counterparts at a district level. Councils have been locked in a lengthy dispute over southern Hampshire districts’ wish to join a Solent Combined Authority with unitaries Portsmouth and Southampton city councils and Isle of Wight Council, while a recent change of leadership on the latter has thrown that proposal into major doubt.

O-xfordshire: While the leaders of the three largest parties on Oxfordshire CC have called for all councils in the county to be abolished and replaced by a single unitary, some of the districts are not so convinced. But with a proposal to create five executive committees, serving the current district areas and made up of unitary councillors from each area, and the power to raise a council tax precept, some district leaders have not completely discounted the proposal at its first mention. The plan is due to land in the Department for Communities & Local Government’s in-tray later this year.

R-adical: Just when devolution discussions seemed to be going swimmingly in Lancashire, Chorley BC’s leader Alistair Bradley (Lab) called for a “radical” reorganisation of the way services are delivered in the county. Under the plan the proposed Lancashire Combined Authority would be responsible for economic growth, skills and education, transport, and waste disposal, while a trust for children’s services, accountable to the combined authority, should be set up. Health and social care services would be based in an accountable care organisation commissioned by clusters of councils. Unsurprisingly the proposals have drawn criticism from the leaders of other Lancashire authorities.

G-uidance: LGC exclusively revealed yesterday that the government is preparing to provide a steer on the handling of reorganisation proposals. It is not known at this stage exactly what the guidance will contain although it is likely to touch on the size, scale and process of proposals.

A-lternative to mayors: Discussions about reorganisation ramped up after it became clear last year that ministers were contemplating striking devolution deals with areas which did not want to adopt an elected mayor in return for adopting unitary structures.

N-orthamptonshire: Relations are certainly strained in a particular part of the East Midlands after Daventry DC appeared to be preparing to ask the government to intervene in the county council due to the state of Northamptonshire’s finances. But in a bizarre twist, Daventry’s leader Chris Millar (Con) later apologised for the “error” and claimed that part of a report should never have been published. An investigation is now underway but the county’s chief executive Paul Blantern has expressed dismay at the district’s “unprofessionalism” and thought the report was written as a result Northamptonshire’s ambitions to create a county unitary.

I-mpact: Despite the obsession about reorganisation, research by consultancy Shared Intelligence found those areas that previously underwent structural change generally produced less effective councils.

S-outh-east: Five districts in Kent are seeking to merge. While they do not plan to bid to become a unitary at this stage, that appears to be the long-term goal. Kent CC’s leader Paul Carter (Con) is willing to engage with the districts on their merger but he will be keeping a close eye on developments.

A-ll on board?: Meetings across Dorset are currently taking place to decide on unitary proposals. Poole BC was the first to take a final decision last night, with councillors supporting the option for one council serving Poole, Bournemouth, and Christchurch, with another unitary authority serving the rest of Dorset. That proposal was backed by residents in a public poll. While most councils appear to be fully behind the plans Christchurch’s scrutiny committee has cast some doubt over the proposals.

T-est case: Both Buckinghamshire CC and the county’s four districts have submitted competing proposals for unitarisation to communities secretary Sajid Javid. His decision on those bids will be looked at very closely by councils in Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire at the very least as it is expected to inform other areas about what proposals are, and are not, acceptable to ministers.

I-deal size: New unitary councils should ideally serve populations of between 300,000 and 700,000 – well that was what government officials indicated last year anyway. That figure was slightly revised upwards when communitues secretary Sajid Javid, speaking at the County Councils Network’s annual conference in November, said the Department for Communities & Local Government “typically look for” proposals for unitary councils to represent “anywhere between 300,000 and 800,000” people.

O-ne unitary for each county: Creating single county-wide unitary councils in current two-tier areas could save up to £2.9bn nationally over five years, according to independent research for the County Councils Network.

N-orfolk: After a devolution deal for Norfolk and Suffolk collapsed in November, it was perhaps inevitable there would be some political fallout. According to reports in the Eastern Daily Press discussions about reorganisation in Norfolk are rumbling in the background.

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