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Counties revive unitary debate as ministers at loggerheads

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Two county leaders have said they hope to turn their councils into unitaries, in the week that it emerged ministers at the Department for Communities & Local Government were at loggerheads over local government reorganisation.

The gulf emerged when Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat minister responsible for decentralisation at the Department for Communities & Local Government, said unitaries offered the “scale” necessary for the devolution of powers.

A unitary structure would also mean local populations were governed by an area they could “identify with” rather than remote regional bodies, he said.

“Eric Pickles says he has a pearl-handled revolver that he’ll use on any minister that mentions reorganisation, but speaking as myself, I’d say devolution has to be to area that people identify with …you need unitaries to give you the scale to do that,” he said at his party’s conference in Glasgow.

His comments contrasted with those of fellow DCLG minister Kris Hopkins, who said last week: “While we do not see unitary authorities themselves as a bad thing, given the precarious state of public finances, the government is of the view that now is not the time to undertake a resource intensive and disruptive restructuring of local government.”

Mr Hopkins’ comments came in a letter to Matthew Crowe (Lab), a Chorley BC member opposing his council leader’s proposal to leave Lancashire CC and become unitary.

Meanwhile, Warwickshire CC leader Izzi Seccombe (Con) told LGC discussions about English devolution followng Scotland’s independence referendum had prompted her to reignite the debate about the county turning unitary. The debate stalled in February when it was rejected by all but one of the area’s districts.

“I think the best unit for devolution would be the county area as a unitary,” she said. “The debate will be coming back.” Cllr Seccombe said she was “going around community forums” to garner support for the idea, for which a “business case” was being compiled.

“My preference is for a unitary on county boundaries, but other proposals will come forward. One is for two county unitaries, a north and a south Warwickshire, and that may be some people’s preference,” she said.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles had “made it clear to me that he doesn’t agree with this”, she said, adding: “I’m trying to influence future governments.”

Leicestershire CC leader Nick Rushton (Con) also said he wanted to revive the discussion about creating a unitary council on Leicestershire CC’s boundaries.

“Nothing’s going to happen before next May, but somebody needs to look at the entire structure of local government,” he said.

South Lakeland DC leader Peter Thornton (Lib Dem) said he had asked officers to investigate whether the council would be viable as a stand-alone unitary authority. “We think it might be,” he said.

He said that joint arrangements with other councils could deliver top-tier, strategic services like highways while many of Cumbria CC’s other functions were neighbourhood services which could be delivered more effectively by a small stand-alone unitary.

Cllr Thornton said that he was “desperate” to get a steer from central government on its approach to council restructuring. “We are looking for a clear indication of where we might go.”

Buckinghamshire CC is also set to be drawn into the debate next week, when a crowdfunded report on unitary status is due to be published.

LGC’s survey of 200 councillors and senior officers, published last week, revealed 29% believed council boundaries would be redrawn in their area.

One respondent said this prospect raised concerns: “There is a risk that this debate will mirror all previous local government reorganisations and not be driven by issues of local democracy [and] what community people feel they belong to… but rather be determined by arguments about costs [and the] number of politicians and officers.”

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