The latest rows about reorganisation and the current state of play in each two-tier area has been uncovered by LGC research.
The Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government has stated in notes relating to restructuring in Northamptonshire unitaries should cover “a credible geography consisting of one or more existing local government areas” and have “a substantial population that at a minimum is substantially in excess of 300,000”. LGC reported in 2016 how government officials had indicated any new unitary councils should ideally serve populations of between 300,000 and 700,000.
This research brings together the latest developments in each area.
Last month housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid said he was “minded to” approve a proposal to abolish the two-tier system in Buckinghamshire and create a single unitary council, as proposed by Buckinghamshire CC. However, the county’s four districts, which submitted a two-unitary proposal, said they would challenge Mr Javid’s decision and make the “strongest possible representations” ahead of a final decision. Last week the leaders of Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Buckinghamshire and Wycombe DCs seized on the recent publication of the results of a survey commissioned by the county council, which found 67% of 1,000 randomly selected local residents indicated support for the two-unitary option. This was rejected by Buckinghamshire leader Martin Tett (Con) as “old news being warmed up”. He called for the districts to put any differences to one side as the secretary of state had been clear the two-unitary option was not viable.
While there is a focus on implementing the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA’s devolution deal, mayor James Palmer (Con) has convened a panel to look at public sector reform which is due to report back in September. Mr Palmer told LGC last year: “I don’t believe [the current structure] is an efficient model of local government.”
Reorganisation map: The rows and battlegrounds for reform
At the last meeting of the Cumbria leaders board, all six leaders instructed their chief executives to look at options for either one or two unitaries. They are due to report back with initial findings and some recommendations at its next meeting in June. County council leader Stewart Young (Lab) backs a single county unitary but having witnessed three failed attempts at reorganisation in the past he believes the Boundary Commission for England should have the final say rather than councillors.
There do not appear to be any firm plans for reorganisation coming forward in the area.
The process to dissolve Dorset’s existing nine councils and create two new unitary authorities started on 29 March when the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government submitted legislation in the form of a structural change order to Parliament. This stipulates that the two new councils must operate in shadow form until 1 April 2019, with the first meetings convened no later than 14 days after the order comes into force. Last week Christchurch BC councillors opposed to reorganisation claimed Mr Javid acted unlawfully by submitting the draft legislation. A motion calling for the government to withdraw the legislation as it would deny Christchurch the opportunity to challenge the two-unitary proposal was set to be considered at a meeting of full council on Tuesday.
Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire
Populations: 786,700, 680,500, 811,500
The leaders of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire CCs, along with Derby, Leicester, and Nottingham city councils, and Lincolnshire CC have begun talks on forming a strategic body to cement collaboration across the region, with a view to developing a combined authority and a possible devolution bid. It is aimed at being a counterbalance to the West Midlands CA under mayor Andy Street (Con). Leicestershire leader Nick Rushton (Con) told LGC reorganisation, including the creation of new unitary councils, was under consideration and that severe financial pressures on the region’s councils had given talks on reorganisation momentum. Derbyshire’s leader Barry Lewis (Lab) has also hinted at a need to reorganise councils in his area, while Nottinghamshire CC’s leader Kay Cutts (Con) has previously voiced her support for creating unitaries.
East Sussex falls within the government’s ideal size for a unitary with 550,000 residents, but there is no interest in restructuring from the county’s perspective at least. The main focus politically relates to the subnational transport body, Transport for the South East. This arrangement is bringing several counties together to work on strategic infrastructure.
Essex CC and the county’s districts are currently focused on collaborating to boost economic growth and housing, with reorganisation not seen as a priority. With a lack of clarity on devolution deals the Association of South Essex Local Authorities (ASELA), which consists of Basildon, Brentwood, Castle Point, Rochford BCs, Essex CC and unitaries Southend-on-Sea BC and Thurrock Council earlier this year signed a memorandum of understanding to develop a joint vision for infrastructure, planning and growth up to 2050. Harlow DC leader Emma Taol (Lab) said she was focused on developing economic growth areas with neighbouring districts, with work in the north of the county said to be further advanced than in the south.
Plans for reorganisation have been shelved as they are said to be too complicated.
One of the main problems for a future reorganisation is the county’s size: Hampshire is too big in population for one unitary under the government’s current recommendations and the county council reportedly will not accept a split into two unitaries. One district leader told LGC two unitaries “wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea”, adding that relations between the county and districts are “not great”. Meanwhile, Hampshire CC leader Roy Perry (Con) is hoping to discuss resurrecting the failed devolution deal with interested district leaders after the elections.
Hertfordshire CC leader David Williams (Con) is keeping developments elsewere “under review” but said the county’s population of almost 1.2 million placed it outside the scale of a single unitary Mr Javid would be willing to consider. “Equally I’m unwilling at this time to contemplate fragmentation of our excellent social care and children’s services,” said Cllr Williams. St Albans & City DC leader Alec Campbell (Con) told LGC that “for the majority” there was no appetite for reorganisation, but said the county’s leaders were discussing how to “get better organised” in order to approach the government for additional funding.
There is no current political desire to reorganise local government in Kent, not least because the current size recommendations could require splitting the county into four. Many councillors said it would be difficult to get consensus from all the MPs and districts because, as one leader put it, “no-one is going to press the self-destruct button”. There is also no appetite to resurrect the planned merger of five districts in east Kent after Ashford BC and Shepway DC (now Folkestone and Hythe DC) aborted last year.
Reorganisation map: The rows and battlegrounds for reform
Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, who is Rossendale and Darwen MP, voiced support for reorganisation last month after Pendle BC decided to explore whether a unitary could be created with any of its neighbouring councils. An east Lancashire unitary was first proposed in 2014 by former foreign secretary Jack Straw, who was then MP for Blackburn and felt that the area had needs distinct from the rest of the county. He suggested it should cover Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendle, Ribble Valley and Rossendale BCs, although the proposal eventually withered. Ribble Valley recently rejected the idea of resurrecting that proposal.
Lincolnshire CC has been involved in discussions with Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire CCs over forming a strategic body which could have an arrangement with the government like that of a combined authority. East Lindsay DC leader Craig Leyland (Con) told LGC the issue of reorganisation is currently a “moving piece” across the county, with districts also “very keen to explore devolution” after the government appeared to soften its stance on the requirement for an elected mayor. Cllr Leyland added if the government demanded a “unitary solution” as a requirement for a devolution deal then “we would have to do it”, with this likely to involve at least two new councils due to the area’s size. Last year, Lincolnshire CC was forced to abandon plans for a referendum on reorganisation following a legal threat from districts, led by Lincoln City Council leader Ric Metcalfe (Lab). While “in favour of a collective debate on the future of local government in Lincolnshire”, Cllr Metcalfe said “a remote unitary mega council for the whole of Lincolnshire would be ridiculous”.
One leader told LGC the reorganisation debate “never goes away” in Norfolk. However, as much of the business rates growth is based in the east of the county in and around Norwich, and much of the ageing population in sparse rural areas in the west, there is no obvious way to fairly divide the county up. A single unitary is also felt to be too big and remote.
The last time reorganisation reared its head in North Yorkshire about a decade ago it “ended up in an unholy row” and the region is “still suffering from some of the after effects”, according to county council leader Carl Les (Con). However, he added: “It is something sensible people will have to have a conversation about some time.” Any unitary will need to have “scale”, said Cllr Les.
A deadline for alternative reorganisation proposals to those set out by inspector Max Caller has been set for 27 July. The government ruled out the option of a single unitary, covering the whole of the county in a letter on 27 March. The most likely outcome is for the establishment of two unitaries: West Northamptonshire, containing Northampton BC, South Northamptonshire Council and Daventry DC; and North Northamptonshire, containing Corby, Wellingborough, Kettering BCs and East Northamptonshire Council. South Northamptonshire and Cherwell DC are likely to be split up but will try to continue their joint working partnership.
Reorganisation map: The rows and battlegrounds for reform
The majority of councillors are opposed to reorganisation into one unitary because it might hamper the Oxfordshire housing and growth deal. The £210m plan was announced in November and aims to deliver 100,000 new homes by 2031, in addition to the supporting infrastructure. Vale of White Horse DC leader Matthew Barber (Con) wrote to Mr Javid on 28 March calling for reorganisation to be reconsidered alongside the housing deal. However, Cllr Barber announced on 20 April he will step down as leader on 16 May and there are no other leaders who will take the lead on his proposals.
There are no firm plans following the merger of West Somerset DC and Taunton Deane BC in March. North Somerset Council continues to keep a watching brief on whether to join the West of England CA.
Staffordshire CC leader Philip Atkins (Con) said “we have not got the time or energy to waste on the disruption of reorganisation” so both the county and districts are focused on an “enhanced two-tier” working arrangement instead. Cannock Chase DC last November made it clear it would oppose any reorganisation plans.
Following two separate mergers of districts, the county council has commissioned ResPublica to not only review local government structures but look at wider public sector reform, including health and potentially police and fire. Babergh and Mid Suffolk DCs’ proposed merger is now on hold with Mid Suffolk’s leader favouring “the creation of unitary councils” – note the plural.
County council leader David Hodge (Con) sees no need for reorganisation and there is little to no appetite shared by his district counterparts.
There is no desire whatsoever to discuss reorganisation among the leaders in the county.
There is no interest at the county and district level for reorganisation.
There are no plans for reorganisation.