City and county councils could create savings worth hundreds of millions of pounds if they were put in charge of running a wider range of public services, the County Councils Network’s chair has said.
In an LGC interview, David Hodge, the Conservative leader of Surrey CC, urged the government to devolve power and funding along county boundaries.
“There are lots of services that could be run by the county,” he said. “We’re saying we could take over job centres, benefits and health services – not medical ones, but the back office, such as HR.
“For example, the NHS doesn’t need a property department; we can do that. The NHS should concentrate on front line services.
“We believe by streamlining and making it more efficient, creating clarity of focus, a huge sum of money can be saved.”
Cllr Hodge claimed that within five years of adopting this approach, larger county areas could save “in the region of £600m-£800m”. He said he would be happy for this saving to be shared on a 50:50 basis between the county and the Treasury, with the locally-retained share spent on regeneration.
“It’s not about power for the sake of power,” he said. “It’s about cutting costs to the government.
“There’s not enough money around to keep funding what we need. More children are being born and people are living longer.”
Cllr Hodge also said he wanted local enterprise partnership boundaries to be redrawn along county lines.
“Where LEPs cross boundaries it doesn’t lead to good governance,” he said. “Counties that have cross-border LEPs find it awfully frustrating.
“I think there needs to be a rethink of the LEPs, and they should become much more part of the public sector framework. They need to be much more in the tent. One LEP could cover two counties, but it should be on county boundaries.”
Asked about communities secretary Eric Pickles’ emphasis during the Conservative party conference on devolution to neighbourhoods, Cllr Hodge said: “I understand where he’s coming from but perhaps I’m thinking of a bigger agenda.
“Neighbourhood plans are really good and do work. They make people locally more aware of how they can change things.”
However, he said, devolution of further funding and responsibilities had to come with the accountability provided by local government.
“When you’re elected as a councillor you have a proper mandate and a proper governance role and you’re accountable for that,” he said.
“If there’s no proper governance you shouldn’t be devolving it down. Someone has to account for it and be responsible for it.”
Cllr Hodge said the prospect of having an elected mayor, an idea championed by chancellor George Osborne as a prerequisite for devolution, “doesn’t upset me”.
However, he added: “I’m a bit worried where you have mayors that can’t be sacked. Everyone should be accountable.”