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The sun might be setting but the end to reorganisation rumours is far from over

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Buckinghamshire and Wycombe DCs are heading for the cemetery where Kennet (Wiltshire), Restormel (Cornwall), Wansbeck (Northumberland) and other districts in the way of county unitary plans found their final resting place.

Will others follow, or will an oddity in the law save them?

Around 40 districts have bitten the dust in reorganisations in the past decade, and may now be remembered only by those who worked there.

Buckinghamshire’s districts now face the knacker’s yard after the government go-ahead for a county unitary yesterday, and Northamptonshire’s are close behind as a by-product of the ministerial response to Northamptonshire CC’s chamber of financial horrors.

Where else? Leicestershire CC leader Nick Rushton (Con) has irked the county’s Tory MPs and district leaders by proposing a county unitary, while Suffolk CC’s Colin Noble (Con) was ousted in May over the issue.

(Of course, counties are abolished too as part of any widespread reorganisation process but their names typically remain.) 

The legal issue that may get districts off the hook is that the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 allowed ministers to “fast track structural and boundary changes with the consent of one local authority” in two-tier areas. However, it has a sunset clause that withdraws these measures on 31 March 2019. This was done to reassure councils that ministers were not taking permanent powers to muck around with their boundaries.

But what follows sunset? Before the 2016 act, then communities secretary Eric Pickles refused to entertain reorganisation proposals unless all involved were agreed – a more or less impossible hurdle. He boasted of having a pearl-handled revolver to deter approaches.

Before him, the Labour government issued an open invitation for councils to table reorganisation plans and these proceeded in a haphazard way with county unitaries being created – to the great resentment of districts – in Cornwall, Cheshire, Northumberland and Wiltshire, among others.

As of next April, there will be neither ministerial fast track powers, nor exotic firearms, nor an open invitation to guide councils as to what is acceptable.

If there were a requirement for unanimity one dissenting district could halt a reorganisation, and so none would be likely.

But if there is a requirement more like unanimity except for one recalcitrant nuisance (which appears to be the attitude towards Christchurch BC in the Dorset reorganisation) then more are possible.

Until the government states its new position (if indeed it does ever decide to be explicit), no-one will be certain. Meanwhile, spiralling social care costs – which are really driving this latest reorganisation round – will continue to eat away at county budgets.

And as LGC understands the government could revert to the position before 2010 when there was a standing invitation to submit reorganisation proposals which contained compelling businesses cases or, more likely, in the event of financial failure the end to reorganisation rumours appear to be far from over.

Mark Smulian, reporter

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