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Battle lines drawn as CCN enters new territory

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Commentary on the contest for CCN chair

The County Councils Network is something close to a one-party state, with an overwhelmingly Conservative membership and since its 1997 foundation its chair has been a Tory, with one brief exception 19 years ago.

But even one-party states have some internal politics and CCN Tories are in the unaccustomed position of what is thought to be the first contested election for their leader – and so the next CCN chair.

What is more, they have a choice not just of person but of approach. While Phil Atkins, leader of Staffordshire CC and David Williams, leader of Hertfordshire CC, have pretty similar views on the importance of funding adult social care and driving economic development, they part company on reorganisation.

Cllr Williams has urged the government to give clarity on what it is prepared to sanction and to make faster progress.

He has asked how Hertfordshire, population 1.2 million, could fit in with the government’s current requirements for the population range of a unitary, and said he “could not countenance the fragmentation of adult social care or children’s services into two or more unitaries”, which rather implies he’d like to see a unitary Hertfordshire.

By contrast Cllr Atkins is content with reorganisation being left to areas that want it to make proposals without pressure from Whitehall or anywhere else; and spoke of a complementary role played by districts with that of counties.

As of 1 April, the number of English districts finally sunk below the 200 mark, with successive reorganisations having reduced them from the almost 300 created in 1974.

That established a two-tier system, which is now looking distinctly moth-eaten.

Pressure for change now comes from counties seeking economies of scale through county unitaries mainly as they grapple with spiralling costs for children’s services and adult social care, the latter something Cllr Atkins warned could yet be ”the ruination of local government”.

The mid-1990s reorganisation though did the opposite and took major urban areas out of counties as new unitaries.

Dorset in April reorganised into a county unitary, with a neighbouring unitary conurbation, and Buckinghamshire is set to be next.

Ideas have also surfaced at times for more radical changes that tear up existing boundaries and create authorities around travel-to-work areas, or hyper-local bodies of the kind found in continental Europe based on parishes.

Believers in localism ought surely to consider it up to each area to determine how to govern itself.

But the inexorable increases in costs of the adult social care and children’s services may yet force councils into the path of economies of scale no matter the other consequences.

Mark Smulian, contributor

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