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The momentum behind the reorganisation of local government in two tier areas appears to be building. A little over two weeks into the new year and the issue has been on the agenda at council meetings in Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Northamptonshire (not to mention Dorset where councils are from next week due to start taking final decisions on unitary proposals).
However, it is Buckinghamshire that appears to be the one to watch.
The county council submitted its proposals for a single unitary to government in the autumn while district leaders, who are advocating a two-unitary arrangement, are due to meet with the communities secretary tomorrow.
Sajid Javid has previously praised Buckinghamshire’s proposal for a single county unitary, describing it as “detailed, innovative and original” and “exactly the kind of proactive, locally driven thinking that I want to see”. But could he be swayed by the districts’ arguments? He is expected to make a decision by March.
Northamptonshire CC has explicitly said it is waiting for the communities secretary to respond to Buckinghamshire’s submission before deciding how to proceed, despite highlighting potential savings from a move to unitary in its medium term financial plan late last year.
This appears to have prompted much concern among districts, leading to the odd situation last week when Daventry published a paper calling for the government to intervene at Northamptonshire, only for the leader days later to insist it had been a mistake.
In Oxfordshire, where tensions have been running high for almost a year now, the county and its districts are at stalemate after the five districts abandoned their plan to abolish the county and replace it with three super-districts and a combined authority. The county, however, still maintains that the best way to reduce costs would be “abolishing all six councils and creating one, brand new council for Oxfordshire”. A fresh set of proposals from the county is imminent.
In Hampshire, the county has published proposals for a county unitary but unsurprisingly districts refuse to sign up. LGC today reported that Basingstoke & Deane BC is advocating the county be split into two unitaries: one for the north and one for the south.
With the planned changes to new homes bonus and a financial settlement which is becoming increasingly less favourable to districts than it was between 2010 and 2015, it is hard to disagree with Basingstoke & Deane’s leader Clive Sanders (Con) that it is “probable that the current two-tier system of local government will become unsustainable in the medium term”.
Cllr Sanders warned this meant the council should “start the process of change now to avoid collapse and or a panic reaction in a few years’ time”.
Mr Javid would do well to heed those words. His predecessor Greg Clark insisted counties and districts must come to their own agreements on future structures before he would sanction any kind of reorganisation. Mr Javid must be prepared to be decisive, even if it does not make him universally popular.
Unless the financial situation for local government changes dramatically, this debate is not going away. The worst case scenario would be leaving councils to fight this out among themselves for months or years while relationships deteriorate, taxpayers money is wasted, and councillors and officers are distracted from the day job.
With so much at stake and local feelings running high, the chances of all sides in these arguments reaching agreement are slim. A dispassionate arbiter is exactly what is needed.