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Simon Edwards: 'No guarantee county unitary moves will snowball'

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The head of the County Councils Network has said a majority of his organisation’s two-tier members would seek to become a unitary if ministers gave a clear steer they supported restructuring.

In an LGC interview Simon Edwards also predicted no counties would follow Northamptonshire CC in issuing a section 114 notice, and claimed the credit for his organisation in winning the wider sector extra resources in the final local government financial settlement.

Mr Edwards was speaking at the end of March, a month in which housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid rocked the make-up of the English shires by approving the reorganisation of two-tier Dorset largely into a county unitary and saying he was minded to support the same structure in Buckinghamshire.

This has led to expectations of ministerial backing for wider reorganisation, with county unitaries the generally favoured model. 

The CCN director said his organisation was not “promoting unitarisation across the piece”. But he insisted counties “are the big strategic players and can marshal the wider public sector in a place and can make the arrangements to deliver on growth”. His organisation had been “delivering some really robust evidence” to show how only larger scale units of local government could deliver adult and children’s services efficiently.

Mr Edwards expressed pleasure that ministers had been receptive but said there was no guarantee the county unitary movement is “likely to snowball and continue at pace”, not least as two-tier arrangements had in many places survived “several rounds of unitary conversations”.

Asked how many of the CCN’s 27 two-tier members would seek to become unitary, Mr Edwards said: “If you were to say how many would like to do it if the government came out and said ‘this is what’s happening’, you would have a large majority who would say this is something they would do.

“There’s a difference between that and how many would actively pursue it – this is not an easy process and it can interfere with local relationships if you’re unsuccessful or just raising the issue.”

On the issue of Northamptonshire CC, Mr Edwards accused government inspector Max Caller’s report of “a slight glossing over of the demand pressures that one of the lowest funding councils in the country have experienced in terms of population increases”.

However, he added: “That doesn’t detract from my absolute agreement that there have been political and managerial failings.”

Amid expectations the only politically tenable course for the county is it being split into two unitaries, Mr Edwards interpreted Mr Caller’s report as saying that a single county unitary “would be a perfectly effective and efficient body”. However, “that would be associated with rewarding the failed county council”.

The CCN director insisted this was not the case with all of the county’s councils being “disbanded”.

He said any move for the new unitaries to cross county lines, incorporating Oxfordshire’s Cherwell DC, which has successfully shared management with South Northamptonshire Council, would be “a disaster”. Such shared services had only saved 4% of local government’s total savings, Mr Edwards said – the sort of saving which “pales into insignificance” compared with the additional costs of “disaggregate[ing] services in the neighbouring county as well”.

Asked whether other counties would follow Northamptonshire by effectively conceding bankruptcy, Mr Edwards said: “Do I think that any other of our member councils are close to issuing a s114? The answer is no.

“Counties are in a worse financial position than anywhere else but most of our members are just about coping. The tragedy is that we’re now making decisions in our areas that are not cost effective or efficient – and this goes for all of local government – because we’re not able to invest in prevention any more.”

Mr Edwards said he would not support the creation of a national care service, although there were people in local government “who for their own ends would like to portray” it as being a poisoned chalice for the sector.

“Anyone who thinks that social care going into the NHS would deliver a more effective and efficient system is living in cloud cuckoo land,” he said.

He was optimistic local government could unite around a fairer funding system. “There’s a lot made of our differences and a lot of jockeying for position and a lot of special pleading but there is a recognition from most people now that we do need to have a new funding formula and that needs to be built from scratch, based on the cost-drivers approach,” said Mr Edwards.

He believed such an approach would recognised the “additional cost of rurality” and rising population experienced by counties. Asked which councils should lose out as part of such a distribution, Mr Edwards said some were still “funded like it’s the 1970s or 80s” and “their residents get four times per head of population more funding”.

Mr Edwards said the CCN had been transformed over the past four years, making it now “effectively the voice of non-metropolitan England” and its influence with the government was encapsulated by chair Paul Carter’s (Con) “excellent relationship with the secretary of state”.

“We don’t whinge about every issue, we pick our battles and we say these are the things that matter and we are going to collect the research and we are going to engage with the government on policy solutions,” said Mr Edwards. “Sometimes it’s heading stuff off, sometimes it’s influencing.”

Mr Edwards said the £166m extra found for all types councils in the latest final local government settlement was “purely and solely down to the work that CCN did with members of Parliament and lobbying the government”.

He added: “No one else won that money. We are working for the wider sector as well as just representing our areas.”

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