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Unitary moots reverting to district status amid financial struggle

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Torbay Council is considering returning to district council status or merging to be part of a larger unitary authority as it seeks reorganisation in anticipation of future financial problems.

Twenty years after the council became a unitary, chief executive Steve Parrock has been instructed to “review all options” for reorganisation as Torbay seeks to balance its budget for the 2019-20 financial year, following a surprise vote in support of the move last week.

In a statement the council said: “Following a motion discussed at last week’s council meeting a decision was made for the chief executive to review all options for local government reorganisation, including Torbay reverting to a district council.”

The motion was put forward by mayor Gordon Oliver and backed by his Conservative colleagues on the council. The Liberal Democrats were not warned of the proposal ahead of the vote, and decided to abstain.

Explaining his decision to pursue a review, Mr Oliver said: “We are a very small unitary council, and there’s no let-up in the removal of revenues for smaller authorities.”

However, he said there are no plans to issue a section 114 notice, the mechanism used by Northamptonshire CC to impose spending controls and effectively signal it was no longer viable.

At the centre of any change is responsibility for adult and children’s services. However, Mr Oliver said any reorganisation would not affect an existing agreement with Plymouth City Council to deliver Torbay’s children’s services.

Mr Oliver said he had already spoken with Devon CC about returning to district council status.

“We had discussions with them a few weeks ago,” he said. “They obviously want more information from us, but you would expect a degree of caution.”

Mr Oliver said Mr Parrock would speak with the Local Government Association at its annual conference, which starts on Tuesday.

Steve Darling, Liberal Democrat group leader on Torbay, confirmed the chief executive would be undertaking a full options appraisal to secure the council’s finances for the future.

While a reversion to district council status was possible, Cllr Darling said the review would also consider setting up a South Devon unitary. Setting up town councils in Torquay and Paignton has also been mooted by councillors.

“There are two massive issues as to why we’re in this place,” Cllr Darling said. “One is the Conservatives decided to freeze council tax, and that was reflected in low income for the local authority. And, of course, it’s the grants that continue to be cut. That’s the pincer movement we have suffered.”

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