Nottinghamshire CC’s new Conservative administration is backing ambitious plans for county unitaries across the East Midlands.
Leader Kay Cutts said she wanted to create a unitary Nottinghamshire, and while she could not tell neighbouring counties how to organise she hoped they would follow suit.
As a first step she intends to sponsor a referendum in Bassetlaw DC, which she hopes will see voters oppose the idea of the district joining the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority as a constituent member, due to fears it will be a threat to the county.
A referendum is being sponsored for similar reasons by Derbyshire CC over whether Chesterfield joins the city region.
Cllr Cutts told LGC: “We believe district councils have had their day and I’m keen to have a unitary county. The savings would be about £30m annually.
“If other East Midlands counties did that too – and I have no power to make them – we could then have a combined authority to deal with transport infrastructure and so on, which the [unitary] city councils [Derby and Nottingham] could join if they wished.”
Powers over local matters could be devolved to town and parish councils in a unitary Nottinghamshire, Cllr Cutts added.
Cllr Cutts unsuccessfully called for a county unitary while in opposition last year.
Derbyshire’s new Tory leader Barry Lewis said he opposed Chesterfield joining the city region as it was “economically not a good deal” for the town.
He said the earlier D2N2 devolution deal for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire had fallen apart because “dealing with 19 districts is rather like herding cats and Kay [Cutts] is right that we need to sort out our structures first then look at devolution, which would now depend on the attitude of MPs”.
Cllr Lewis said a county unitary was “a possibility” for Derbyshire.
Leicestershire CC leader Nick Rushton (Con) unsuccessfully promoted a county unitary in 2014, encountering fierce opposition from districts.
He said: “After two years we’d save £30m a year with a unitary and I’m looking at needing to save £66m to £70m a year. Stopping having seven of everything in each district looks a no-brainer to me.”
Cllr Rushton admitted that both some Tories and the opposition Liberal Democrats on the county council would be likely to be against the idea.
Lincolnshire CC tried to hold a referendum on a county unitary but dropped the idea in February after a legal challenge from Lincoln City Council, although the plan to hold a poll could be revived later in the year. Northamptonshire CC last year also called for a county unitary.
The idea has though been fiercely resisted by most districts both within and across party lines, with MPs concerned not to offend local sentiment.
Northamptonshire leader Heather Smith (Con) told LGC the changed parliamentary arithmetic meant, “priorities have changed and the government is not going to be interested in local government reorganisation unless everyone involved can put an agreed plan forward.
“The Treasury will still be interested as we’d save a fortune over five years, but there is a problem if districts are not supportive.”
She said she wanted a county unitary but Northampton BC wanted to become a unitary, and Wellingborough BC wanted no change.