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Five become three as voluntary merger plan bites the dust

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

As Oscar Wilde didn’t quite put it: To lose one council may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Having already shed Ashford BC over concerns about council tax equalisation, the largest merger yet proposed in local government – a district serving 635,000 people - has now lost Shepway DC too.

This effectively scuppered the East Kent merger; since its business case was based on the four remaining councils, three would require a trip back to the drawing board.

Shepway’s defection, largely over issues of size and remoteness, leaves Canterbury City Council and Dover and Thanet DCs to their own devices.

It also shows that leaving reorganisation to voluntary mergers, rather than the top-down interventions, may be a slow way of making nothing happen.

So far only one merger has been effected – with Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs becoming East Suffolk Council.

They though had harmoniously shared staff and services since 2008, when Waveney was hit by a series of eccentric financial calamities.

Adur DC and Worthing BC have long functioned as one council but two political entities – having shunned merger because their individual grants might become less than the sum of their parts if merged.

The imminent disappearance of grant has yet to change this, though the two have this month unveiled a new joint logo.

Forest Heath DC and St Edmundsbury BC share staff and services and have rebranded as West Suffolk but remain legally separate without merger on the horizon.

Meanwhile, unviable West Somerset DC seeks to merge with Taunton Deane BC but is now the subject of a tug of war with Sedgemoor DC, which has its eye on some of West Somerset’s territory.

It notably covets the area around the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, from which someone will get a hefty section 106 payment and a business rates windfall.

There are high-profile rows in varied stages of progress about whether county unitaries – or combinations of districts - should prevail in Dorset, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Norfolk and Northamptonshire.

What is different about East Suffolk, and would have been about East Kent, is that these creations did not change tiers and so avoided debilitating fights with county councils.

Voluntary district mergers should perhaps be a route to economies of scale without much of the usual pain of reorganisation.

However, East Kent’s original form would have served a larger number of people than some counties and all but two metropolitan councils.

Would it really have resisted the temptation of unitary status for long?






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