This May marks nine years since Wiltshire Council became a unitary authority. At the end of this month, the new secretary of state at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government will make a final decision on whether Buckinghamshire follows the same route.
I know from my experience that going unitary helped Wiltshire navigate austerity’s choppy waters a great deal more smoothly. However, the aftermath of the previous secretary of state’s support for such a move in Buckinghamshire has been sadly predictable, with local districts launching a campaign against the proposals.
I faced the same, with councils putting aside public resources to unnecessarily challenge the decision and mislead residents over the choice they faced.
With the decision on Buckinghamshire an important milestone in local government, districts’ activity deserves closer scrutiny.
Firstly, the tactics being deployed are dishonest.
Since the decision, district councils in Buckinghamshire have distributed 150,000 leaflets asking local people to continue to support their proposal for a two-unitary solution.
However, the districts know that if they were to achieve a rethink it would be the status quo, not their proposal, that would prevail.
The government has rejected their proposals, concluding that two unitaries would not deliver significant efficiency savings, and that the geography proposed is not credible.
A recent parliamentary answer by ministers went further in ruling out the two-unitary option, stating it was now “statutory guidance” that any new councils cover populations “substantially in excess of 300,000 people”.
Yet these facts do not feature in the material distributed in Buckinghamshire, with its implicit attempt to distract residents from the only prize that is now realistically on the table: a single council able to rise to the challenges ahead, not least through delivering savings of £45m over the first few years which can be invested in local services.
Attempts to paint a false picture of the choice facing residents are compounded by a concerted effort to distort some simple lessons that we can draw from previous reorganisations.
Accusations that the new council will be too remote or will create a democratic deficit are predictable lines of attack. But what was less predictable was that Wiltshire would be used by the opposition as an example of a struggling council, in an attempt to somehow support its case and evidence these claims.
The reality is, however, that the evidence completely refutes them.
The new council in Wiltshire allowed us to exceed our targets, delivering over £100m of savings. We created a new type of council capable of marrying strategic scale, efficiency, greater democratic accountability and better local decision making; far from the struggling council depicted by some in Buckinghamshire.
Speak to any councillor and they will tell you they wouldn’t turn back the clock – and that includes former district council leaders. Talk to any MP, and they will tell you how we have been able to maintain frontline services at a time of severe financial restraint. Talk to any business leader, and they will tell you a single council has allowed us to work constructively with our all our partners to promote our economy and secure investment.
It’s a story repeated by the rest of those who went unitary in 2009.
Instead of inaccurate scaremongering, stakeholders in Buckinghamshire should be getting round the table to devise a sensible implementation plan, drawing on all the talents from the district and county councils to devise a new authority. To not do so is immoral in a climate of reducing funding.
Similarly, the government should draw lessons from what is happening in Buckinghamshire. The need for guidance – ruling out what kind of models are on (and off) the table – should be a clear conclusion. This would allow a sensible, informed discussion between councils and with local residents; preventing the kind of aforementioned conjecture being peddled.
This guidance should include the minimum population levels already set out by government, as well as strict criteria on significant cost savings and pay-back timescales. The guidance should say that proposals must offer better public service delivery – not least in retaining and improving children’s and adult social care. It should also state the need for areas to present a credible geography with a clear local identity, able to provide a sustainable distribution of resources and to promote growth across multiple functional economic areas.
The decision in Buckinghamshire will say a lot about whether policy making by the government, or within the sector, is led by evidence or by vested interests.
I am confident the new secretary of state will make the right choice.
Baroness Jane Scott (Con), spokeswoman for governance and reform, County Councils Network and leader, Wiltshire Council