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Exclusive: Steer expected on reorganisation bids

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The government is preparing to provide a steer on the handling of reorganisation proposals as friction continues in two-tier areas over structural reform, LGC understands.

Guidance had been expected to be published this month to coincide with a decision on Buckinghamshire CC’s proposal for a single unitary, but this has now been delayed until March at the earliest after the county’s four districts opened talks with the Department of Communities & Local Government over a proposal for two unitaries.

A spokesman for DCLG has denied that any such guidance is being planned but LGC understands from a number of senior sources in local government that the matter is being discussed by officials.

However, it not known at this stage exactly what the guidance although it is likely to touch on the size, scale and process of proposals. It is also unclear whether it will be written guidance or a verbal steer from ministers.

The government’s decision on the two competing reorganisation bids in Buckinghamshire is being seen as pivotal to proposals emerging in areas including Oxfordshire, Hampshire, and Northamptonshire where there have been long-running tensions between the respective county and district councils over future structures. LGC research last year revealed almost two-thirds (62%) of senior officers said they would like government to intervene in two-tier areas which are embroiled in reorganisation disputes.

Buckinghamshire CC’s leader Martin Tett (Con) told LGC: “I believe [the government is] preparing some guidance.

“I think it would be really valuable and useful. At the moment this is an opaque art in terms of timescales and process.

“We need a clear process and timescales and preferably some clear criteria so we know what the government is looking for in a bid and how it would judge them.”

Cllr Tett said it was unfortunate the whole process will have taken a year by the time the government decides on Buckinghamshire’s proposals and that by March it will have “strayed” close to the county’s elections on May 4.

“The last thing I want is for it to slip into the purdah period and become an issue on the doorstep,” he said.

Sandra Dinneen, chair of the District Council’s Network and chief executive of South Norfolk Council, hoped any guidance would “help rather than enforce” a potential restructuring process.

She told LGC: “Clarity would be useful in terms of some idea about the parameters to try and stop people spending lots of resources and trying to reinvent the wheel.

“We hope [guidance] would focus on people and place rather than historical boundaries. It is very clear that one size does not fit all.”

Ms Dinneen added there were various options for the future structure of local government, including closer cross-council collaboration and shared services, which could take into account specific identities and the way communities coalesce around economic areas and health services.

“I hope the guidance will allow us to look at the future in the long-term, not just the short-term, and looks at wider public services,” she said.

Independent research for the County Councils Network, published in November, found creating single county-wide unitary councils in current two-tier areas could save up to £2.9bn nationally over five years.

Simon Edwards, CCN’s director, said the research aimed to outline an evidence base for discussions and added: “The lack of policy framework has contributed to the fraught nature of local discussions and competing proposals, so having guidance in place for such a fundamental redesign of local services is crucial and shows that ministers are serious about the reorganisation agenda.”

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