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Two radically different structural solutions to the financial crisis

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Commentary on this week’s restructuring plans

It is a truism of politics – and a foundation of broad church parties – that two people may advocate different solutions in pursuing the same ends.

What’s rarer is to have different groups claiming that entirely opposing proposals can lead to the same outcome. But with regards to Leicestershire CC and Torbay Council such a situation has emerged.

Nick Rushton (Con), leader of Leicestershire CC, revealed today that he wants to create a new county-wide unitary authority. He believes the move could save £30m in administrative costs annually.

“We must accept that the two-tier local government system which remains in parts of England is broken, bureaucratic, old fashioned, confusing, inefficient and takes money away from front-line services,” he said. “A unitary council would save money, as well as simplify and improve services.”

Leicestershire – and, just to clarify, we are talking about the doughnut-shaped two-tier part of the county, not Leicester City Council, the unitary hole in the middle – has a population of 680,500. This more than double the 300,000 the government recommendation for the minimum population size of new unitaries. Compare that figure to the 134,500 population size of Torbay.

The comparison is relevant because Torbay’s mayor Gordon Oliver (Con) also this week mooted a reorganisation, also in pursuit of better finances. Already Torbay Council has spoken with Devon CC about it. The difference is that it is seeking to return his council to district status and hand over responsibility for services including adult and children’s services.

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

This is not the only option under consideration. Torbay Council’s chief executive will also look into the idea of a larger south Devon unitary authority.

With regards to both of these areas, the outcome is uncertain. As anyone familiar with council restructuring knows starting a conversation about change is far removed from implementing it, and there will be ample opportunity for delay and derailment for any critics of further reorganisation.

Nevertheless the depth of local government’s financial crisis means radical solutions will be required.

Restructuring is underway in Dorset, will surely happen in Northamptonshire, and will plausibly happen in places including Somerset, Buckinghamshire and Lancashire. Leicestershire CC will not be the only additional council following this route.

However, it is far harder to envisage other councils rescinding their hard-won unitary status to become two-tier once more, not least as two sets of councillors and smaller scale generally adds cost, rather than cuts it. Torbay’s fate will be determined as much by the financial pressures experienced by Devon CC, its only top-tier neighbour, and the only council it can merge its top-tier services with.

Jimmy Nicholls, features editor, LGC

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