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Javid's unitary claim prompts call to end 'obsession'

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The chair of the District Councils’ Network has called for an end to local government’s “obsession with structure”, after housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid predicted the creation of more unitary councils.

In the Commons on Monday Mr Javid was asked by Patrick McLoughlin (Con) how many people are currently served by unitary councils, and how many he expects will be in five years’ time.

Mr Javid responded: “I can tell him that 60% of English people are served by unitary authorities, and I expect the number to be higher in five years’ time, given the views of many local people about unitary authorities and our commitment to consider unitarisation whenever requested.”

Last November Mr Javid said he was minded to approve the proposed ’Future Dorset’ reorganisation, that would see the area’s nine councils abolished and replaced with two new unitaries.

The housing and communities secretary is also considering a proposal to create a single unitary across Oxfordshire, and competing proposals by districts and the county council in Buckinghamshire.

DCN chair John Fuller (Con) said he did not think Mr Javid’s comments were controversial, but called for a focus on boosting local economies rather than “navel-gazing” over reorganisation. 

He said: “It is clearly a statement of fact. If his minded to decision [on Dorset] is put into effect, there will be more unitaries.

“It is a perennial obsession of councils to focus on structures rather than necessarily think about the people we serve and the geographies that make sense to them.

“Putting social care aside, it is the overarching responsibility of councils to grow the economy, to find channels for investment and to generate money so that those in need of council services can be looked after.”

Cllr Fuller said districts could be used as “building blocks defining economic geographies” without the need for structural change, rather than maintaining “boundaries laid down in 1066”.

A County Councils Network spokesman said Mr Javid’s comments were “a reflection of the appeal of unitarisation in some areas”, but added counties are “already delivering for communities whether reform takes place or not.”

He added: “For those wishing to pursue structural reform and devolution, county footprints are the natural starting point.

“This is illustrated by clear evidence, rather than nostalgic feeling over the historic nature of county boundaries.”

He said independent research in recent years had shown the benefits of reform on a county scale.

“Not only this, counties are already embedded in their communities, having the intimate knowledge to grow economies locally, do business with government nationally and represent local people,” he added.

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