Kent CC’s leader is to launch a radical drive to convince the Conservative leadership to devolve power to sub-regions based on traditional county boundaries, LGC can reveal.
Paul Carter (Con) anticipates savings of £21bn over three to five years through voluntary groupings of councils taking over services performed by quangos and freed from many inspection burdens.
Cllr Carter will submit a report to the shadow cabinet this month proposing that county, district and unitary councils arrange themselves voluntarily into sub-regions.
The plan would divide England into 46 sub-regions, which would broadly mirror traditional shire and metropolitan county boundaries (see map, right).
He believes the groupings will be large enough to deal directly with Whitehall, enabling councils to be freed from central constraints and to take on powers over health and policing.
Cllr Carter’s initiative comes amid intensifying efforts by Tory councillors to build on the groundwork laid by the party’s Control Shift local government green paper.
Tory local government big hitters - including Hammersmith & Fulham LBC leader Stephen Greenhalgh, who is writing a separate localist manifesto - say they are offering council-led solutions to Britain’s public spending crisis.
Cllr Carter said of his plan: “It’s about getting a mature relationship between all types of councils… proving to central government that they can work together in a mature and sensible way, taking control of areas previously overseen by quangos.
“David Cameron has promised a control shift - the empowering of the citizen and community organisations. My paper is totally in that direction of travel.”
Cllr Carter’s call for power to be devolved to sub-regions based on traditional county boundaries will, however, prove controversial.
Although the plan requires no formal restructuring of local government it will inevitably lead to fears that districts will be sidelined and city unitaries, such as Nottingham or Bedford city councils, carved from counties in reorganisations of the past 20 years, will lose autonomy.
Paul Watkins (Con), leader of Dover DC said that Tory district colleagues across south-eastern councils had agreed that “there is some way to go before consensus is achieved” on the proposals.
“The role of the districts needs to be further explored. Paul has given a view from a county perspective,” he said.
Another Tory district leader, who did not want to be identified, said “most” of his counterparts opposed Cllr Carter’s plan.
However, Waverley BC leader Richard Gates predicted that districts could gain significant freedoms in areas including welfare and housing.
“What he’s been looking at isn’t the reorganisation of local government across England - he’s asking what the most effective way is of dealing with funding streams that currently come from the government through quangos,” he said.
Cllr Carter said that local government “in all of its shapes and sizes” would benefit. “Some of the districts have been a bit sensitive about some of the language used in earlier drafts. But this is about respecting existing local government boundaries,” he said.
“Are we capable of getting our act together without arguing over territories and boundaries? I hope we are.”
He said that if councils refused to co-operate the government might have to force them to work together.
Chris Leslie, director of the New Local Government Network, said the need for savings would encourage the Conservatives to examine partnerships that built on Labour’s multi-area agreement model.
“They are of a mind to find as many savings as they can through non-controversial means,” he said. “If they can do it through wider-scale commissioning rather than cutting a service, they will appreciate that model.”