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Reorganisation is far from ‘toxic’ even if decisions are driven by financial crisis

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Cast your minds back four years: Eric Pickles was still lecturing the sector, the ‘devolution revolution’ had not yet begun, and Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union seemed about as likely as Donald Trump becoming president of the United States of America.

But a lot can happen in a relatively short space of time.

In 2014, business lobby Buckinghamshire Business First presented proposals to create either a single unitary or two unitary councils, with a preference for the former as it would bring about bigger savings only for it to founder on opposition from the districts.

Since those proposals were first aired there have been two general elections, two different communities secretaries, a change of prime minister, and a departmental name change.

As the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed then try and try again, and in 2016 councils in Buckinghamshire did just that.

Proposals to create a single unitary council were resurrected by the county and while Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Bucks, and Wycombe DCs did not agree with that idea they backed a bid for two unitaries – one in north just below Milton Keynes, and another in the south of the county.

Official bids were submitted to Sajid Javid but due to fallout of a referendum on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and a botched attempt by the prime minister to strengthen her mandate in a snap general election, the proposals have found themselves pushed towards the bottom of the ministerial ‘to do’ pile.

The election result, which left the Conservatives without a clear majority, led the chair of the Local Government Association Lord Porter (Con) to claim reorganisation was very much “off the table” as it is too “politically toxic” to deal with.

Much to the surprise of many, Mr Javid has confounded expectations by reaching reorganisation decisions for not just pairs of districts in Somerset and Suffolk, but county-wide changes in Dorset and now Buckinghamshire too.

This latest decision feels the most significant of the lot for the others had broad consensus. In Buckinghamshire there was a distinct division in the visions laid out by the both the county and its districts.

There had been an expectation that the decisions on Dorset and Buckinghamshire would give the sector an insight into ministers’ thinking on this issue – it had previously been expected the government would issue guidance to coincide with its decisions, with an expected focus on what it regards as an appropriate process, scale, and structure.

But the decisions to date – one county unitary, and one breaking up of a county into two unitaries – are keeping people guessing.

The fact, though, that decisions have been taken at all indicates Mr Javid believes reorganisation is far from a toxic topic and will merely be a bitter pill to swallow for some. However, these big decisions are perhaps borne out of necessity given the state of the sector’s finances as a whole.

Following Northamptonshire CC’s financial meltdown (which will surely result in reorganisation), a handful of other county councils have expressed concern about their bank balances including East Sussex, Surrey, and Buckinghamshire – all Conservative-led.

Last month Buckinghamshire’s leader Martin Tett (Con) warned his council is on course to become nothing more than a social care provider in the near future as it will have little to no discretion to spend money on any other services.

Then came the National Audit Office’s warning last week that more councils are likely to follow in Northamptonshire’s footsteps in the next five years if they continue to walk the same financial cliff-edge.

The rising demand on expensive social care services combined with revenue support grant reductions, ongoing uncertainty around the fair funding review and the drawn out move towards full business rates retention is stressing out even the calmest chief finance officers and chief executives.

While Mr Javid has shown bravery in reaching key decisions on a handful of proposals, there is no indication there is an appetite for widespread reorganisation.

But with many senior officers and councillors feeling like they are merely managing decline, the government could yet be faced with more dilemmas over what constitutes a sustainable structure in places if the NAO’s prediction comes to pass.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Now need to get a move-on and embolden many more to come forward quickly with a clear bidding framework and devo deals as a clear incentive.

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  • anybody thought of asking the public their views about the level at which they want decisions to be taken that impact on them.

    anybody thought of having research on effectivness of different sized authorities in different types of places...cities or market towns etc undertaken and published

    anybody favour a transparent approach involving an independent commission

    or are we going to allow a government to take away local self government without consent or evidence griven by political fixes.

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