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Inside Out: Unitary is strength

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Assuming unitaries should be based on counties is a disservice to districts

I have always believed unitary is strength when it comes to local government. I was really pleased when it was recently reported that Labour is looking to embrace it.

I was less pleased with the government’s response. They ‘played politics’ with it rather than responding to the issue.

Granted, the move to unitary councils has never been smooth.Councils disappear, people lose their power and influence, places can feel they lose their identity, and there are always transitional costs. However, the advantages when unitary government is established far outweigh the transitory downsides.

I have worked for a district that became a unitary council, a county unitary and a district unitary. One size does not fit all circumstances. It seems to be assumed these days that unitaries should always be based on counties. This is a disservice to the strength and professionalism of district councils and will be a barrier to change in some circumstances.

There are three secrets to make moving to unitary local government successful. First, the area covered needs to make sense to residents. My hometown was moved from Lancashire to Merseyside in 1974. I still address Christmas cards to my relatives using Lancashire, 40 years later. The boundaries of unitaries need to be determined locally.

Second, there needs to be strong national leadership. The whole of England needs to be covered by unitary government. Unless this is made clear, local vested interests will fight change and drive up costs.

Finally, it needs strong local leadership, seeking consensus on change and then managing the change well. There are savings and service improvements that can be unleashed by bringing together tiers of government, but they have to be realised. They don’t happen on their own.

Given the financial struggle matched with rising demand, no element of transformational change can be dismissed. My heart sinks when I think of yet more organisational change. But maybe it needs such a shake-up to unlock the other changes we need to embrace. Unitary is strength.

FIND OUT MORE LGCplus.com/5022821.article or email LGCinsider@gmail.com

The one thing he won’t comment on is his identity…

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