The five councils in Buckinghamshire are set to be replaced by a single unitary council covering the whole county, housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire has announced.
The new council should be established on 1 April 2020 with the first elections taking place on 7 May 2020.
While Martin Tett (Con), leader of Buckinghamshire CC which was backing the one unitary bid, has expressed his delight at the decision, the leaders of Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Bucks and Wycombe DCs are “disappointed”. The districts had wanted the county to be broken up into two unitary authorities.
In a written ministerial statement Mr Brokenshire said, having assessed both proposals: “I have concluded that whilst both proposals meet the criterion for a ’good deal of local support’, only the proposal for a single unitary council satisfies the criteria for ’improving local government’ and for ’being a credible geography; and that in any event the proposal for a single unitary council is better able to meet the criteria overall.”
Mr Brokenshire said the government’s policy remained that it “will not seek to impose top-down solutions on local government” but added: “Given the desire and thrust for change and innovation in Buckinghamshire, that the five councils agree that the current structures are not sustainable, and that the locally-led proposal for a single unitary is the only proposal that meets the three criteria, I am persuaded that the right course of action is to establish a new single unitary district council for Buckinghamshire.
“Accordingly, I am today announcing that I have decided to implement, subject to parliamentary approval, the locally-led proposal to replace the existing five councils across Buckinghamshire – the two-tier structure of Buckinghamshire County Council and the district councils of Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Bucks and Wycombe – by one new single unitary district council, and that I have decided not to implement the proposal for two new unitary councils.
“Whilst I am clear that the single unitary proposal fully meets the three criteria, I recognise that some have questioned whether such a structure might weaken local democratic engagement at the most local level.
“To help reassure any who might be concerned on this, I intend to speak with the five councils to determine whether I should modify the proposal before implementing it, in relation to councillor numbers, perhaps providing for three-member electoral wards. I will also expect the new unitary council, and in the meantime the existing councils, to engage with their local communities about the appropriate arrangements for civic representation for towns and parishes. I similarly expect the councils to promote and help support the development of neighbourhood plans, as I consider these can be key building blocks for the successful implementation of change in Buckinghamshire that residents deserve.”
Mr Brokenshire’s predecessor Sajid Javid had said in March that he was “minded to” back the single county unitary proposal but that more work was needed to gather support for it. That had now taken place, said Mr Brokenshire.
Cllr Tett said: “This is a truly historic day for Buckinghamshire. The announcement paves the way for a brand new council, fit for the future, created by combining the best of both county and district councils. This new council will be simpler, better value and more local to our residents. It will also have more clout to face head-on the great strategic challenges facing the county over the coming decades.
Buckinghamshire is almost certain to be the last reorganisation imposed under the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, which allowed ministers to “fast track structural and boundary changes with the consent of one local authority” in two-tier areas, until 31 March 2019.
Although this appears to mean that unanimous consent would be needed in future for any reorganisation, LGC understands the counties movement does not think plans could be blocked simply by any dissenting district.
The government could, for example, revert to the position before 2010 when there was a standing invitation to submit reorganisation proposals, or say that it would receive them in cases of financial failure or a compelling business case.
“There has been robust debate over the last couple of years over how best to modernise Buckinghamshire’s out-dated two-tier system. Everyone has agreed that a change to a unitary form of governance is the only way forward.
“Now a decision has been made it is the time to put the past behind us and work together, to build the better future Buckinghamshire’s residents deserve.”
A statement issued on behalf of the district councils said: “We are disappointed that the secretary of state, James Brokenshire, has announced today that he is supporting a new single unitary district council that will cover the whole of Buckinghamshire, excluding Milton Keynes.
“The secretary of state has previously stated there was a need to ensure broad consensus and we do not believe this has been achieved with the new single unitary district proposal.
“All four district councils, as well as many key stakeholders, firmly believe that the two unitary authority approach, based on the two different economic geographies in Buckinghamshire, is the best option for protecting, delivering and transforming the services needed both now and in the future.
“We will now be considering our position, seeking further advice and reviewing the options available to us.”
As the districts are due to hold elections in May 2019, Mr Brokenshire has offered to delay those by one year.
Meanwhile, Mr Brokenshire issued a warning to any areas thinking about submitting any fresh bids for reorganisation.
“From March 2019 the sunset clause means that the consent provisions in the process we are currently using for reorganisations fall away. In future, any proposal considered under the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act process will require unanimous consent from all councils. Alternatively, I may issue a formal invitation for proposals, and the specific circumstances in which I would do so will be set out in due course,” he said.
The District Councils network (DCN) condemned Mr Brokenshire’s decision.
Its chair John Fuller (Con) said called it “unwelcome” and said the government had failed to secure of local councils that it called for in March.
Cllr Fuller said: “This decision is the consequence of ill-conceived legislation albeit with a sunset-clause provision which expires shortly. We welcome the clarity of the secretary of state’s confirmation that there will be no new proposals under this legislation and that in future reorganisation proposals will require 100% support of those councils affected.”
County Councils Network director Simon Edwards said: “It is the right decision for Buckinghamshire, particularly given that every council agreed that the status-quo was not an option.
“In this unprecedented period of financial pressures facing local authorities, Buckinghamshire’s ambitious plans will allow them to better adapt to the significant challenges facing councils, as well as ensuring that frontline services are protected, with a strong platform for promoting growth and wider public service reform.”