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More reorganisation? Let battle commence

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News that the Department for Communities & Local Government is taking a fresh look at the two-tier system will spark fears of more disruptive reorganisation rows.

The wrangles from the last general invitation to restructure, issued by then-local government minister David Miliband in November 2005, are still being felt in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk.

The Boundary Committee for England has confirmed it is appealing against a High Court verdict that it should have given more consideration to alternative structures proposed by districts in Suffolk. It is not yet known how long formal recommendations to the Secretary of State will be delayed as a result.

Elsewhere, the process proved equally disruptive - both in areas that ultimately became unitary councils and those that remained two-tier.

In Bedfordshire, hostility erupted between the county council and its districts completely after Bedford BC co-operated with Mid Bedfordshire and South Bedfordshire DCs on an ultimately successful plan to split the county in two.

In Lancashire, relationships took a while to recover after both county and districts weighed up competing bids. Eventually the county demurred from submitting a proposal while bids from Lancaster and Preston city councils, and a joint bid from Pendle and Burnley BCs were rejected by DCLG.

While many chief executives in unitary councils dismiss the virtues of two-tier government – Durham CC chief executive George Garlick described two-tier working as being “like pushing water uphill” – there are few in two-tier who believe change would be both easy and beneficial.

As one attendee at the DCLG discussion meeting put it: “If they open up a structural debate, they will drive us into the mud for five years. Our focus needs to be on delivering efficient and effective public services.”

Gloucestershire

Any hopes officers in Gloucester might have had of avoiding any unitary related controversy were scuppered by local MP and former junior local government minister Parmjit Dhanda.

In an interview with a local radio station last year, Mr Dhanda – an advocate of nationwide unitary government – said £16m could be saved each year by replacing the seven authorities in the county with two unitaries.

Since deciding against going for unitary options, Cotswold DC has investigated joint working with Tewkesbury before deciding to share a chief executive with West Oxfordshire.

North Yorkshire

The last reorganisation process did not leave North Yorkshire untouched – the government initially approved a bid for a county unitary from North Yorkshire CC but rejected a bid from East Riding of Yorkshire DC to merge with Selby.

North Yorkshire’s bid failed to make the second cut after vociferous opposition from a coalition of MPs including former Conservative Party leader William Hague and former local government minister David Curry.

Moves towards closer joint working between districts and county continue. Harrogate BC and Craven DC have explored the possibility of sharing senior managers and back office services with a view to merging or even becoming a joint unitary council.

Richmondshire DC and Hambleton DC have also shared a chief executive.

Cumbria

Cumbria was another area where a single-county bid was initially approved before being turned down by the Secretary of State.

The county bid was opposed by at least one of the districts and in the wake of the decision, efforts were made to set up a county-wide shared ICT system. When those stalled, Carlisle City Council and Allerdale BC pushed on with plans to merge senior management teams. A report by outsourcing firm Serco found scope for annual savings of £1.1m.

However, the proposals were rejected by Allerdale members in January and a trial period of sharing Carlisle’s chief executive came to an end the month after.

After a five-month search, Allerdale’s acting chief executive was appointed on a permanent basis last month.

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