The business community in Buckinghamshire wanted more effective and efficient government so much that it crowdfunded £25,000 to conduct research into different unitary authority models for the county.
The conclusion of the report? Buckinghamshire would save over £20m a year by streamlining its five local authorities - one county and four districts - into one, with all upfront costs of implementation being repaid after one-and-a-half years or earlier. The report concluded that no change was not an option.
Were we living in times of unbridled prosperity we would still be looking for ways to make our local authorities more streamlined and efficient, but with austerity the name of the game for the foreseeable future, £20m in annual savings is a winning ticket.
Buckinghamshire is not alone in this thinking. That is why Cheshire East Council’s leader has floated combining into a unitary authority; why local authorities in Cumbria, Leicestershire and elsewhere are discussing similar proposals; and why an ex-MP in Lancashire has called for a single council in the east of the county. This is a popular idea for good reason: it will create the potential for stronger local economic and social leadership.
Businesses and residents increasingly feel they want more of a say in this debate because, as ever they will have to pick up the financial slack. It is interesting in this context that Chorley BC has recently suggested a local referendum on the same issue.
The business community wants all the great government we can afford, with a strong emphasis on ‘great’ and ‘afford’. This is why in Bucks it has funded research into the possibilities for change.
General election candidates should be asked to make clear to their constituents where they stand on this issue. It would surely be anti-democratic to plan to reconsider the constitution in which they would be personally conflicted at a later date and behind closed doors.
In an age of transparency, a system of local government focused on the most effective impact possible on local economic and social realities and priorities is what we need. Those in power should not be able to dictate the terms of that power: that right belongs to the residents and businesses they serve. The time has arrived to ensure the power stays where it should - with the local people and businesses who pay for our government.
Philippa Batting, managing director, Buckinghamshire Business First