Housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid has said he is “minded to” approve a proposal to abolish the two-tier system in Buckinghamshire and create a single unitary council.
In a ministerial statement published today, Mr Javid said the single unitary model “is likely to improve local government and service delivery in the county, generating savings, increasing financial resilience, facilitating a more strategic and holistic approach to planning and housing challenges, and sustaining good local services.”
Referring to a counter proposal for two new unitary councils – one for the area of Aylesbury Vale and the other for the remainder of the current county area – Mr Javid said he was “equally satisfied” that this model “is unlikely to improve local government in the area”.
He added that, despite the two proposals, he is “satisfied that across Buckinghamshire as a whole there is a good deal of local support” for a single unitary council which would have “a credible geography”.
Mr Javid said “further steps are needed” to secure local consent, adding he hopes the “minded to” decision would “facilitate the necessary discussions to deliver this local agreement”.
He invited further representations by a deadline of 25 May, including proposals for potential modifications to the proposal.
Buckinghamshire leader Martin Tett (Con) recently warned his council could become “nothing more than an organisation that does adult social care and children’s services” due to increasing service demands and reductions in budgets.
He has previously said a single county-wide unitary would give Buckinghamshire a “single, strategic voice” with greater regional and national influence.
Responding to today’s announcement, Cllr Tett said a single unitary could “will simplify the current local government setup, save many millions of pounds to plough back into frontline services and enable services to be provided for residents at a truly local level.”
He said there is “widespread support” for the proposal and he pledged to work closely with the district councils and other partners as the county moves to a unitary status.
“There is consensus amongst all our local councils about the need for change, and that our current two-tier system requires modernisation,” said Cllr Tett. “Now is the time to work together and put any differences to one side to ensure that we can give our residents a far simpler system by offering better value and more joined-up services.
“Let’s grasp this once-in-a-lifetime chance to tell the government that a single unitary council is the best route for Buckinghamshire. A single unitary means we can join up and redesign services, focusing on the needs of residents, combining best practice from across our existing councils, to design public services that are fit for our future generations.”
Simon Edwards, director of the County Councils Network, said: “Today’s announcement is the right solution, backed by up by a clear argument and compelling evidence from the county council.”
He added: “Importantly, this option was chosen ahead of breaking up and fragmenting the county; it is county boundaries that have the size and scale necessary to retain and reform crucial frontline public services so they work better for residents, whilst offering the best scope for financial savings.”
The four districts which supported the two-unitary proposal said it acknowledged differences between the north and south of county and would maximise the potential for housing growth through the Oxford to Cambridge corridor, and meet the needs of growing businesses seeking a UK base close to London.
John Fuller (Con), District Councils’ Network chair, said this decision “would appear inconsistent” with the decision to replace nine councils in Dorset with two unitary authorities. He said “there was broad agreement and substantial consensus” for such a proposal and added: “It must be remembered that there were two different visions for the future of local government in Buckinghamshire and if the new proposals are to go ahead then full consensus must be reached during the consultation period.”
Speaking at the County Councils Network conference in November last year, Mr Javid praised both the rival Buckinghamshire proposals as “ambitious, innovative, and ready to come forward with exciting ideas for the future”.