Unitary councils are setting up their own represntative body in a bid to ensure they are not left out of vital discussions on the development of government policy.
A proposal to form the Unitary Councils Network was agreed by the Local Government Association’s leadership board last month.
There are 44 unitary authoirites that are not former counties. More than 20 have already expressed an interest in joining the body which was the brainchild of Paul Bettison (Con), Bracknell Forest BC’s leader.
While there are already special interest groups representing districts, county councils, London boroughs, and metropolitan authorities, Cllr Bettison told LGC he had thought it “strange” since his council was formed in 1998 that there was not a body for unitaries.
“We are not a bunch of revolutionaries,” said Cllr Bettison. “I don’t think [the creation of the Unitary Councils Network] will be considered earth-shattering by the rest of local government but I do think it’s right that unitaries have a forum were we can meet and discuss some of the challenges and problems facing unitary authorities.”
He said unitary councils had “unique challenges”, especially smaller ones, in relation to delivering children’s services on smaller budgets than other top tier councils, as well as the impact of 100% business rates retention.
It was following a discussion with local government minister Marcus Jones ahead of the LGA conference that it became apparent the views of unitary authorities would not be specifically represented in the working groups on the move to 100% rates retention.
Cllr Bettison said he was “not so worried” unitaries’ voices would not be heard as part of the consultation as he had repeatedly discussed the matter in-depth with Mr Jones since that meeting.
“The whole purpose of the network is we won’t be at risk of it happening again,” said Cllr Bettison. “Just because we got away with it the last time doesn’t mean we always will.
“OK, this will mean a bit more work but if it means we get a better deal in the long-run then it means the effort was worth it.”
Another motivating factor for setting up the body was the fact representatives from the other special interest groups now get invites to the communities secretary’s weekly briefings at the LGA every Wednesday.
“There’s nobody there speaking up for unitaries,” said Cllr Bettison. “Arguably the chair of the LGA speaks up for every council but if that’s the case why do all these other bodies send their representatives?”
Other than a treasurer and an honorary secretary Cllr Bettison said there were no plans to appoint any additional officers to the body which will have an annual subscription fee of about £1,000.
Cllr Bettison said he “didn’t want to create a monster that spent a lot of money” so it is proposed that only one meeting is held every quarter. A working group will be set up though so the network can respond quickly to policy announcements.
Cllr Bettison thought the Unitary Councils Network would “not be a threat” to the other special interest groups and added it might show them how they too can be “run pretty lean”.
The body’s first meeting is due to be held either just before or just after Christmas, at which a chair will be appointed.