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Small can be beautiful for unitaries

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Sometimes, bigger really is better. If you’re building cars or aeroplanes then a big company is going to build a better product, at a given price point, than a small one.

A distribution company such as Lakeland Limited or Amazon needs to be pretty big if it is going to be able to provide a good service with a large range of products.

But suppose you want your house painting? Will you get a better service from a large company or from someone who lives in your town and for whom your house will provide two weeks income?

Who would you prefer to look after you in old age: your neighbour or a large, countrywide company? Why do so many of us prefer the ‘little man round the corner’ to service our car?

Let’s talk about small unitaries. About 100,000 to 200,000 population, or the size of our larger district councils. Can they do a better job than large unitaries of about 1,000,000?

It depends on how their communities are constructed and how they relate to their neighbours. There’s a case for saying that even larger unitaries are too small to make some of the bigger strategic decisions for their regions.

There’s no doubt also that smaller unitaries will need to have a strong relationship with their neighbours and to make some decisions jointly and also share services.

As a councillor, I know what my residents care about and (hopefully) the issues that will lead them to vote one way rather than the other. Mostly, these issues are the things that tend to fall between district and county councils.

Potholes and small road repairs, parking - on and off street - traffic in town centres, streetlights, planning, waste collection, housing and social care. All of these can just as easily be performed by a smaller unitary council. I would argue that the theoretical savings of larger authorities can be very easily negated by the inherent inefficiencies caused by centralised decision making that takes place a long way from the end user.

Large-scale road building and repairs, specialised dementia care and fire and rescue services: these are just three examples of services that may need to be shared.

Let’s think again about our assumptions and let’s remember how our areas worked pre-1974. Are we really better off now than when we had our old smaller unitary councils?

Peter Thornton (Lib Dem), leader, South Lakeland DC

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