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Minister opposes 'disruptive' unitary reorganisations

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Local government minister Kris Hopkins has poured cold water on calls for the unitary reorganisation of councils.

In the clearest statement yet of the government’s scepticism, he said in a letter: “Now is not the time to undertake a resource intensive and disruptive restructuring of local government.”

Mr Hopkins sent the letter to Matthew Crow (Lab), a Chorley BC councillor who has opposed proposals by its leader Alistair Bradley (Lab) for the borough to leave Lancashire CC and become a unitary.

It was published in Chorley’s council meeting papers last month after Cllr Crow decided to seek the government’s view.

Mr Hopkins wrote: “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.

“We believe that it is just not sensible to disrupt and distract local government from the core task of devolving and providing services … especially when such a change is bound to be controversial.

“Frankly, we do not believe that the solution to the problems of local government lies in unitary restructuring at this present time.”

He said, though, that if all councils concerned agreed on unitary reorganisation, the government would “not stand in the way”.

His comments contrast with those of Liberal Democrat DCLG minister Stephen Williams, who said at his party’s annual conference this week that he supported local government reorganisation.

The unitary debate faded after the last round of reorganisation five years ago.

However, the idea was revived in some places this year, driven by the search for efficiency savings and the possibility that unitaries could be of sufficient scale to win greater devolved powers.

Last week 45% of respondents to an LGC poll said they would consider changing governance arrangements in return for more powers.

In other moves, a business group crowdfunded research into a unitary for Buckinghamshire, Cheshire East leader Michael Jones (Con) has called for Cheshire to be reunited in a unitary, and inconclusive discussions on a unitary structure have been held in Cumbria.

Meanwhile, two MPs have called for council reorganisations.

Graham Jones, the Labour MP for Hyndburn, has called for an east Lancashire unitary comprised of Burnley, Pendle, Hyndburn, Rossendale and Ribble Valley BCs, together with the unitary Blackburn with Darwen BC.

He wrote on his website that his calculations showed 72% of services and decisions concerning Hyndburn were made by Lancashire, not the borough council.

East Lancashire formed a single economic sub-region and “it makes little sense for some of the key decisions on the economic future of the sub-region to be made in Preston”, he wrote.

Hexham’s Conservative MP Guy Opperman has called for unitary Northumberland to be split into separate urban and rural areas.


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